I read this for the first time when I was about 15, and it blew my little mind. I figured it was time for a re-read. It holds up pretty well, although 30-something me doesn’t think it’s quite as profound as teenage me.
Barion and Coyul are brothers, scientists, and recent college graduates…FROM SPAAAAAACE! They can change their forms, become energy, telepathically read other beings’ thoughts and energy, and all sorts of cool stuff. They go on an intergalactic partying trip throughout the cosmos to celebrate graduation, eventually landing on a far-away little blue-green planet. When the rest of the group is ready to go, the brothers are too drunk and obnoxious, and they are left behind. Due to the subsequent extreme boredom, they start (highly illegally) tweaking the evolutionary possibilities of the native primates.
Fast forward a few million years, and Barion and Coyul are stuck with the mess they’ve made of Earth. Not only are live humans a headache, but it turns out they have so much energy and life force, it doesn’t completely dissipate after death. So all these post-death personalities start congregating out in the ether, expecting to see God and the Devil. Barion and Coyul will have to suffice. They end up with Topside (Barion’s domain) and Below Stairs (where the more stylish Coyul is in charge). They do their best to accommodate the expectations of new arrivals, but zealots of all stripes are disappointed.
The brothers don’t normally interfere with life on Earth (not anymore, anyway), but Barion senses trouble brewing and they decide to step in. Roy Stride is a young, dumb, angry, small-town white supremacist. Charity Stovall is young, slightly less dumb, but sees no options for herself. (“Wanda looked all around this town and all she found was Earl.” Thank you, Dixie Chicks!) With Roy’s simmering anger and hatred, and Charity’s long-buried smarts, Barion is afraid that their possible future son could be the next Hitler. So God and the Devil join forces to scare the holy hell out of the young couple, curing them of their misconceptions and changing the course of their lives.
There’s some great philosophical stuff about the nature of life and religion, some fun romps through Topside and Below Stairs while Roy and Charity are thrown into a false reality to teach them a lesson, and some interesting guest stars (John Wilkes Booth helps Coyul pull off his part in the charade; Judas drives a cab). It’s fun watching Charity grow up a little and realize her own potential.
It doesn’t all hold up that well. The white supremacist stuff is ugly and hard to get through, of course, but Godwin’s got a weird blind spot. The lesson is hammered in over and over that racism against African-Americans and Jewish people is bad, but apparently it’s okay to say snide things about “the Arabs.” Charity gets another love interest, and I almost wish she hadn’t. I so enjoyed watching her become her own person, I wish she had been able to realize she was a whole person on her own, and not have to get saved by the new guy. She does learn to have lots of good sex on her adventure, though, with absolutely no slut-shaming, so that’s a bonus.
The book jacket says Godwin is “currently (1988!) working on a sequel,” which I didn’t know, so I’m excited to see (belatedly) what happens next.