Let's talk about genre fiction prizes. The Hugo Award is science fiction's gold standard... Every year, along comes The World
Convention and the attendees (dedicated fans) vote for the best SF
since the last time. As a fiction fan, I will usually disregard a
Booker, or Nobel author, but The Hugo will make me take note. SF's
silver standard is The Nebula Award,
given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Of America. This
is the big peer award; and while it has tarnished a little in recent
decades (the SFWA is becoming a bit of a joke), it's still significant
enough to make it on to the front of a novel.
American Gods by
Neil Gaiman managed to take home both of these awards in 2001, and
further to knock back the Bram Stoker horror and Locus Fantasy
awards... It even got a nomination for the BSFA award. To gain one is
an achievement, to win both
marks you down in the SF hall of fame (Le Guin managed this feat with
The Left Hand Of Darkness, Niven pulled it off with Ringworld, Card
delivered it with Speaker For The Dead, and each book is now canon),
and to get both plus others is the genre fiction equivalent of Tiger
Woods. Suffice to say I picked up American Gods with pretty high
It didn't merit them.
cannot, on any level, understand the praise lavished on this humongous
heap of horse shit. The conceit of the novel is a simple one: in modern
America, the distant mythical gods of the past - from Norse to Egyptian
- are co-existing with us while trying to get on with the long habit of
immortality. It's a conceit that fans of Gaiman's work should be
familiar with, since it is shared with almost everything else he's ever done.
Sandman, the epic graphic novel series on which his reputation was
built, is based around this central conceit. Good Omens, co-written
with Terry Pratchett, is based on this central conceit... So, with this
much experience, at least he should be good at it by now. To justify
this epic sweep we have the prospect of a war among the gods as the
central crisis, and the story is structured as a cross-America road
So, why did I hate it so? Well, firstly lets look at the book itself, Gaiman has allowed his publishers to pad this extended edition
with a massive epilogue/appendix and introduction. This contained
interviews, background and context on the story, clearly Gaiman is
rather proud of this one. I read this first, and in this section he
repeatedly hammers home that this is supposed to be an "American Road
Novel", the man is bordering on hubris with the conviction that he is
an English writer attempting the Great American Novel. Thus, despite
all this sales pitching, it was surprising that the novel more than
anything else reminded me of The Long, Dark, Tea-Time Of The Soul by
Douglas Adams and Small Gods by his former collaborator Terry Pratchett
(and his best work). Both of these share an almost identical tone,
conceit and plot structure, both of these are written by
quintessentially English writers, and both of these are satire. American Gods is satire without the laughs.
to that the unbelievable length (600 pages of nothing happening?), the
central character who is farcically poorly developed (at the beginning
he is a loner with no family or prospects, at the end he is a loner
with no family or prospects), and the hideously poorly executed
denouement, a wet fart instead of an orgasm.
I wasn't impressed... The structural flaws of the novel are clear
throughout. A key example is that for the first half of the book there
are short stories of background interwoven every other chapter, while
in the second half these are stripped out with no explanation. This is
just one of the threads he's left fraying in the fabric of this
kilogram heavy tome. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with this
Great American Novel.
I'm not saying it's meritless, Gaiman has
a lot of good ideas that he manages to pack this book with. Each
individual scene contains enough meat that he keeps your interest. He
tries, with intermittent success, to paint America as the grand
outsider's canvas Leone does in his Dollars Trilogy. But a novel isn't
visual the way a spaghetti western is, and there is no art to this one.
The central conceit has been done before, better, by an author called
Neil Gaiman, and his collaborator, and his collaborator's inspiration.
So much for the most heavily awarded speculative fiction novel of the naughts.