One of my favorite scenes in the (wildly uneven) film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy finds Arthur Dent in the showroom of a firm that designs planets. It’s a scene that’s pretty fun in the novel, and instantly familiar to anyone who’s read the book – familiar maybe to the point of taking it for granted. But seeing that scene on the big screen gave it a sense of awe and wonder I’d never really considered before. What kind of universe is this, where planets are crafted by designers? And what kind of being would it take to create something like that?
In many ways, Steve LeBel’s Universe Builders series has been a wonderful, charming effort to think about that question. Starting with Bernie and the Putty and now continuing in his followup, Bernie and the Wizards, LeBel has created a world of gods. No, not necessarily “gods” in the Christian, or even Roman, sense of the word; rather, these are more or less people, with egos, doubts, talents, personalities, foibles, and their own thoughts. And in his series protagonist, Bernie, LeBel has found a winning mixture of qualities – a god whose talent is undeniable, but whose self-confidence is lacking; a god whose concern for his creations makes him an oddity in his world, where gods create planets and treat them like…well, like projects, or like product.
Indeed, that’s the central conceit of Bernie and the Wizards, which finds Bernie working as a troubleshooter of sorts for a world designing business. See, when gods need things – for example, certain kinds of plants – they get people to create universes and planets for them, letting the lifeforms of the planet cultivate and harvest the plants. And in this case, the people aren’t producing anymore. The easy thing would be to wipe out the life on the planet and start over. But that’s not Bernie’s style – not when he feels that any creations have as much right to life as he does. And so, Bernie starts traveling back and forth between his world and this one in an effort to figure out what’s going on.
Much as he did in Bernie and the Putty, LeBel juggles wonderfully the macro and micro views of world creation, giving us a sense of how a planet has to be physically designed with its ends in mine, from climate to distance from the sun, from terrain to moon rotation speed. But this time, LeBel – and Bernie – spends more time among the people on these creations, seeing what life is like for the tiny life forms that the gods have made as plant delivery systems. It ends up being a clever way into the book’s central question: what does it mean to be alive? And where do we draw the line between something that’s created and something that’s simply alive – or is there no line at all?
LeBel makes exploring that question a lot of fun, wrapping it up not only in the intriguing story of what’s going on with this planet, but in Bernie’s day-to-day life, as his reputation continues to grow, even as he continues to feel a bit out of step with the world around him. LeBel plays back and forth between his two worlds, letting Bernie’s worries about his job and his place and society find some traction in the world he’s fixing, and vice versa. Even better, he does all of that while still finding time to give us a sense of the imagination and scope that goes into creating a world – and in fixing those worlds once they go bad.
Like so many books these days, Bernie and the Wizards closes with a tease of what’s to come, giving us a sense that there’s a bigger story LeBel is working on. But on the whole, he manages to both give us the tease and deliver a satisfying, self-contained, complete work, one that tells stories across two entirely different universes, but manages to make it all work. It’s a real treat to read – fun, imaginative, charming, and just plain great to read and lose yourself in.