Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jonathan Fast's novel, Mortal Gods, looks at a future when bio-engineering has become somewhat commonplace. Nick Harmon is a PR flack for Mutagen, the largest bio-engineering company in existence. After playing hooky from work one day, Nick expects to be called on the carpet and, possibly, fired. Instead he is given the high profile task of escorting an alien Alta-Tyberian through the high points of human civilization while Mutagen researchers Alta-Tyberian geneostructure to discover a way of curing a plage ravaging he Alta-Tyberians..
One of the first things bio-engineering was used for in Fast's world, was the creation of immortal "Lifestylers." These people are basically celebrities who began their careers in films and eventually became gods worshipped by non-mutated humans. In many ways, humanity's treatment of the Lifestylers foretold the cult of celebrity which exists in the 1990s, although taken a few levels beyond where it actually is. What makes the difference is that Fast's Lifestylers live in a slightly alternate dimension and can actually grant the wishes of their worshippers during carefully orchestrated appearances. This aspect of the Lifestylers is, perhaps, the most disturbing. They give material goods to their adherents asking nothing in return. What Fast shows us of their society is one of decadence and pleasure without any type of responsibility.
In order to show us human society in the twenty-third century, Fast uses the "stranger in a strange land" technique, introducing an Alta-Tyberian who needs to be shown the basic facts that any human would be aware of. However, Fast throws in a curve by giving Hali Hasannah a background which had her come of age and be educated in human society, her own society already having earmarked her as an emissary to humans. Despite this early initiation, Hali has not really seen the society which Nick introduces her to, which allows Fast to discuss unearned rewards and the ideas of bio-engineering.
The plot, such as it is, takes off while Nick and Hali are at an appearance by Lex Largesse, one of the most generous Lifestylers. Upon appearing through a transdimensional window to bestow everything from a bio-engineered pegasus to a MagLev limo. The supplicants reasons for wanting these boons does not matter. In fact, Lex and his fellow Lifestylers seem to pander to the greed which is inherent in humans. None of the gifts are given with the hope that the receiver will use the gift to better society, or even anyone beside themselves. Only a few of the gifts, such as Sir Etherium's gift to a man named Joe to have a few moments with his deceased wife, provide any sort of spiritual benefit to the recipient. Interestingly, that is the only gift which Hali views with horror.
Both Lex and Sir Etherium are assassinated while Nick and Hali are watching their appearances and the police, in a fit of xenoracism, pin the blame on Hali. Although there has been little love lost between Nick and Hali, he sees it as his duty to try to clear her name, taking on faith that she did not commit the murders despite evidence to the contrary. The remainder of the novel shows Nick trying to free Hali from police custody and prove her innocence.
The science fictional elements of Mortal Gods are not particularly strong. They show the signs of a mainstream writer (Fast had previously written plays and musical compositions) who has discovered the common tropes of science fiction and decided to use them to tell a fable. In this manner, Fast is similar to Kurt Vonnegut or Stanislaw Lem, although Fast's science fictional world does not adhere to the theater of the absurd which those writers employ in their writing. His plot is thin enough that the more philosophical issues, such as reward and racism, are easily extrapolated.