The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt’s new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it’s more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.
God, the thing begins, is getting on. “Fact is […] I feel old,” He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that “had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton.” An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits that He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.
You build a business from the ground up, you care for it, worry about it, you take pride in its progress, you’re there for it when things don’t go so well. But there always comes a time when you have to let go. Or does there?
For obvious reasons, Jesus—who goes by Jay these days—doesn’t disagree. After all, “they’re father and son but also equal aspects of the One; it’s therefore logically impossible for them” to part ways in anything other than a philosophical fashion. It’s to His credit that Jay does wonder where that’s likely to leave Uncle Ghost, who’s gotten a bit dotty in His dotage, before giving God the nod… but notably, nobody mentions Kevin.
Kevin is “the younger son of God, marginally less well beloved” than his celebrated big brother “and with whom his father was not always quite so well pleased.” That’s probably because Kevin is desperately inept. He’s the kind of person who sticks to instant because he broke the cappuccino machine and everyone in a position to fix it with a minor miracle is too busy. Even celestial mechanics, “the easiest part of the business,” is beyond this poor kid, whose destiny seems to be to watch one rerun of Touched by an Angel after another, which… well, the less said about, the better.
To wit, when the time comes to hand off the heavens and the earth, Kevin isn’t even in contention. “Everybody seems to think the Venturi boys are a safe pair of hands” in any event. They’ve taken over and turned around plenty of struggling planets in the past, and they’ve offered a fair price—namely “a number [that] couldn’t possibly exist in human mathematics”—for the aforementioned firmament.
Kevin takes off in something off a strop when his high-flying family proffer this plan to him as a fait accompli, so as the Big Guy, Jay, and the Ghostest with the Mostest drive their holy camper van into the stars, the black sheep of the bunch is left on our lowly level when the Venturi brothers explain how they’ve made problematic planets like ours profitable:
Traditionally, your planet, and millions like it, have lumbered along through the Dark Ages on basically dualistic moral systems. You think in binary terms. Mostly it’s Good versus Evil, though in the past—credit where it’s due—some of you went for the more rational and commonsensical Honour/Shame dichotomy—which you guys currently regard as quaintly primitive. But let’s not dwell on that because everything’s about to change. From now on, there is no more Right or Wrong, Good or Evil. We’re doing away with all of that. It’s holding you back: it leads to war, unhappiness and grossly inefficient distribution of valuable resources. It’s gone. Don’t give it a second thought.
Under Venturi morality, every sentient being is master of his fate and captain of his soul. You can do whatever you want, when you want, how you want, provided you pay for it. And we’re not talking some vague metaphysical, allegorical, wishy-washy philosophical price here. We’re talking about a fixed tariff of charges, payable in your local currency, fourteen of your Earth days from date of invoice, no excuses, no credit. [And] if you don’t pay, you go to jail.
Looks like the Venturis know what they’re doing, too, because over the months to come, criminal empires dissolve into debt as violent individuals are finally made to pay. Relatively little things, like extramarital flings, end up too expensive to pursue; even potty mouths cost more than a curse word’s worth. Faintly evil though it may be, the new system seems to work—at least at first.
There are, of course, those outliers who are unhappy about the recent change in the planet’s management. Malcontents like Jersey Thorpe, an action hero cut from distinctly Dan Brown-coloured cloth who had “dreamed the impossible dream, fought the unbeatable foe, made the impossible call and been put through—only to find the very next day that God had sold out to the Venturi boys and everything was suddenly completely different, rendering his colossal achievement meaningless.” Not to speak of Santa Claus: actually an ancient thunder god too popular with the people for God to put in his place, as He did all the other deities. Even the Venturis might have difficulty bringing this beirdy weirdo to heel.
Between them—them and a couple of other characters that may be more mundane but are no less marvelous—they dream of destroying the new world order that’s made us safer, but (sniff) sadder. And when their paths cross Kevin’s—who, as “the son of the Big Guy [was] born with an overwhelming instinct to redeem, even if none of it’s your fault and you had no say in the major policy decisions”—they find an unlikely ally who’ll probably be no help at all.
The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is, hands down, the best book Tom Holt has turned out in the ten years I’ve been reading his winningly silly fiction. God knows it’s not going to be for everyone—Holt is as happy to skewer the sacred as he is to take the piss out of the profane—but it’s not as barbed as all that, in fact. Its is a wit served with warmth: a sense of affection that softens the story’s sharp parts.
It’s not, on that note, Holt’s strongest story. Narratively, a lot of The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is nonsense, particularly the last act, which gets so grandiose that it almost loses sight of the little people at the book’s beating heart, however Holt is such an entertainer of an author that he could write a trilogy about watching a pot boil while paint dries and I’d read it in a gleeful evening. He has a sparkle in his authorial eye that makes every satirical sentence glimmer, and a spring in his storyteller’s step that makes even the most distracting of his digressions a devilish pleasure.
His characters are, in any case, more fully formed than his narrative, and between cretinous Kevin, Satan’s suck-up of a secretary Bernie Lachuk, and Jersey’s unexpectedly independent love interest Lucy, Holt has a cast of winners on his hands here. Also: a bloody good book that’s perfect for folks who like a lot of fun, and a little Father Christmas, in their fantasy fiction. Unless, I guess, they’re over-sensitive.
The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is available from Orbit.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.