Notes on How Like a God

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Publication

How Like a God, is published by Tor Books. The hardback edition came out in March 1997. The paperback edition came out in January 1998.

Reviews of How Like a God

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The soundtrack of the novel

Not every book takes a soundtrack to itself. But, mysteriously, this book did. Whenever the characters put on a CD or turn on the radio I know what they're listening to. For copyright reasons I only put in a couple of the lyrics -- it would be painful and expensive for my publisher to secure permission to print too many songs. And the lyrics aren't really central to the text the way they are in, say, Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin. For the edification of HLAG readers, however, I can list all the songs here. A truly anal reader could borrow or buy all the albums, load them up into the CD player, and get the music to play at the correct moments in the book.

Edwin Barbarossa, a stubbornly well-defined character almost from conception, brought all the music in with him as one of his major motifs. He prefers Broadway soundtracks for the car, so that he can sing along while driving too fast. He plays rock for exercise, because of the beat, and classical music in the lab, “to stimulate the little grey cells.” When I began the book I knew almost nothing about show tunes or the classical oeuvre. He made me find out, and all the selections are really his.

So music doesn't have any role at all until Part 2 in Central Park, when Edwin appears armed with a boom box playing, on cassette tape, “Sing-Along Songs” from Walt Disney movies. This was for the benefit of the baby niece in the stroller. In the hair salon, the hairdresser has Billy Joel's TURNSTILES album on the CD machine. When Rob goes down to Washington, in the NIH lab Edwin has Peter Serkin playing Chopin in the background, the mazurkas numbers 1 through 3 from Opus 63, and the A minor waltz. Sitting in Bob's Big Boy restaurant, Edwin bursts into an old Cole Porter song, “Experiment,” which is available on an album of the same name sung by Mandy Patinkin.

In the car driving to Atlantic City, he's playing Barbra Streisand's BROADWAY album, specifically “Being Alive” -- “for alone, is alone, not alive...” On the way back he has the soundtrack to SWEET CHARITY in the car stereo, and Gwen Verdon is singing “Where Am I Going.” How Like a God was originally going to be titled Meet Myself There, which is a chunk of that song lyric. When Rob visits Edwin's apartment the first time, the stereo begins to play Wynton Marsalis's STANDARD TIME volume 2. The second time, Edwin is riding the exercise bike to the sound of Van Morrison singing “Wild Nights.”

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Settings you can visit

Large chunks of this book take place in real locations. I took photographs of several of the ones in the Washington area, including:

Many of the other locations aren't worth scanning a picture of -- Bob's Big Boy, for example, or the Hudson Bay Outfitters store. The most interesting locale I couldn't afford to go visit -- the Kyzylkum desert in Kazakhstan. Go read a National Geographic article about deserts instead!

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A Jungian analysis of How Like a God

This discourse was first written as a thinking-on-paper exercise for the benefit of my editor, Delia Sherman, who asked questions that were probing and full of possibility. Only when I wrote this in reply did the strikingly Jungian architecture of the book become obvious. Which just shows that Isaac Asimov was right -- the writer of a story doesn't necessarily know everything about it! I have so little acquaintance with Carl Jung's work that I can be certain this wasn't deliberate on my part. The book did it of itself.

In Part 1 Rob has very little interest in his appearance. Many computer people are like that, and he has his devoted wife Julianne to make all the sartorial decisions for him. He looks like a desk warrior, pale, uninteresting, and out of shape. He wears neutral colors, beige and brown, to symbolize his undifferentiated state.

In Part 2, under the intolerable agony of losing his family, Rob's cold dark side emerges and quickly takes over. The new regime is inaugurated by unnatural and life-denying behavior: not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, but sinking down into the dark on a park bench. Rob's appearance alters as he takes to wearing rags and a dark blue toggle coat. (Black would be heavy-handed.) He loses weight because he forgets to eat. Even his sexuality is warped. When he faces up to what's going on he immediately tries to change by getting a haircut. At the hairdresser he notices music for the first time in the book. He also notices he's blonder. He now has a light and a dark side.

In Part 3, under Edwin's beneficent influence, Rob cultivates his better inclinations and inadvertently worsens a one-sidedness. He forces the tramp, now stigmatized as a frightening monster, down into the sub-basement of himself -- the trap-door of which, however, has no lock. Edwin is the natural ally of Rob's good, lighter side, affirming it and guiding it to greater strength. He plies Rob with music and food, gets him a place to stay, and helps him to start coping with his problems. He even takes Rob to his favorite outdoor supply store for a complete set of new clothing in Edwin's own L.L. Bean mode. Rob comments there that he'll never be cold again.

But Rob's darker side has a powerful ally too -- old Gilgamesh in his cave, another lurker in the dark. In the sub-basement face-off (which takes place in Atlantic City, a notoriously tacky place) the tramp hints at this. Rob at that point is unable to deal with his dark side, and he runs away. Like the tramp, Gilgamesh's hallmarks are unhealthy ones: seizures, solitude, cold and starvation. When Rob confronts Gilgamesh in Kazakhstan he realizes that this is why Gilgamesh chose him -- because Rob has the potential to grown into just as much of a psycho as Gilgamesh himself. It is the tramp and Gilgamesh who are brothers, equal and exactly alike in selfishness. Rob now has to choose his future self-hood: the light or the dark. He's either going to become Gilgamesh, doing nutty things in the radioactive desert (with a suppressed good side squashed down in the basement), or he's going to model himself after Edwin and go home to the wife and kids (and deal with his dark side).

Of course Rob's choice is inevitable, but that's entirely due to his basic character. His love for his family and his friendship with Edwin draw him towards the light and make the decision easy. His internal landscape is full of people and life. It's interesting to note that the original epic poem mentions no children of Gilgamesh, in an era when every ancient monarch enumerated the offspring with pride. If the historical Gilgamesh was actually childless it may explain not only the bed-hopping the citizens of Uruk complain about at the beginning of the poem, but the hero's unusual interest in his own personal immortality. Most people of that time considered their children a sufficient stake in the future. For my fictional Gilgamesh, the lack of family has set him adrift, without anything to care for but himself -- hence Gilgamesh's blasted and barren internal landscape.

The crucial turning point of Rob's fate, in fact, was meeting Edwin. Although in Central Park he wasn't ready to listen to reason yet. If he had met Gilgamesh first, while he was busy pruning and suppressing his natural affections, the issue would have been entirely different. Vulnerable, closed off in emotional self-preservation from his family memories, and in thrall to his dark side, Rob would have hailed the old king as a kindred spirit and gone straight down the drain.

In defeating Gilgamesh Rob clears the ground for the real confrontation in Part 4, with his dark side. Rob can't depower it as he did Gilgamesh, because his shadow is himself, an essential part of his psyche. He confronts it with Edwin's help and comes to a wary understanding instead. For the rest of his life Rob is going to have to beware of backsliding, of inadvertently letting the power warp him into not-self, of becoming Gilgamesh. He knows the face of his own evil now, and the knowledge is a responsibility.

In this soup of symbols Edwin has two roles. He is of course a hermeneut, guiding Rob towards self-realization. But he is also Virgil, the icon of reason and light and learning to Rob's Dante. (This is the reason why Rob is vaguely repelled by The Divine Comedy in the New York Public Library. At that point he's in full avoidance mode, and even the first line of the poem cuts too close to home. “Midway in our life's journey I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” Ouch!) Edwin can guide Rob forward to the final confrontation with his dark side, but he can't battle the shadow himself. In fact Edwin finds Rob's unconscious realm intolerable, since reason has no place there.

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Tuckerizations

When you tuckerize a person, you put him or her into your book. Authors always need people and names to fill out the edges of their story -- the equivalent of the guy in the red shirt who beams down from the Starship Enterprise with Kirk and Spock and Bones. And when invention fails, or when it's simply not worth the energy to cook up a life and a separate history for a character who's only going to appear once, we tuckerize. In this book I didn't use anybody's name when I tuckerized, so the only identification they're going to get is here.

I put myself in, as the ineffectual female commuter on the bus at the end of Part 1, because I used to ride in to work on the bus every day. In real life I would never have the strength of character to ask an upset passenger if he was all right, but the plot called for me to speak up, so I did. My sister Lesley Eckstein appears as the pushy female executive in New York City who breaks the heel of her shoe in a curbside grating. All savvy New Yorkers wear athletic shoes to walk to work, of course. My former neighbor, Maureen Hinueber, lends Edwin Barbarossa her EEG machine. And my son Simon appears, complete with toy car, on the airplane flight to Kazakhstan. At the time I wrote that scene he was exactly that age. As of this writing he is almost old enough to be thoroughly embarrassed by his tuckerization.

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The title

The title of the book is from HAMLET, Act II, scene 2:

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!”

I wrote the novel first, and then agonized for weeks and weeks to find the title. For many months the book was titled Meet Myself There, which is still sort of its shadow name, since I haven't yet brought myself to discard it utterly. It's from a show tune, “Where Am I Going,” and the line runs: “Wherever I run, I meet myself there.”

Read more about titling problems in an article I wrote for SFWA.

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©1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Brenda Clough Last modified 15 February 2004