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Reston resident Brenda Clough has some very specific ideas about creating popular fiction. “Everybody knows,” she says, “you’ve gotta start a book or a movie with a crisis—but a characteristic one for the hero to face. Like, it’s perfectly natural to have Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark with that giant thing barreling down on him.”

This cardinal rule is why Clough opens her new novel How Like a God with its hero, Rob Lewis, facing not a 10-ton boulder but what the author calls a “diaper emergency.” This mundane scene would play flat if not for the fact that it is also the very moment Lewis discovers the “weirdness” inside him: his ability to read people’s minds and control their actions.

Soon Lewis is using his newfound superpowers to make the greater Washington area a better place for everyone: He wills his sister to quit smoking, blankets the overcrowded Lorton prison with positive energy, and forces a homeless man to go for job counseling. It’s a great gig but, sadly, it doesn’t last long. Almost immediately, Lewis’ powers prove problematic: They inadvertently cause a fireman’s death, turn his wife into a Lady Macbeth type, and accelerate his twins’ emotional and intellectual development at a frightening rate.

This premise is, of course, pure Spiderman melodrama, and Clough, who has been reading Batman comics for over 35 years, makes no bones about her wellsprings of inspiration being comic books and lowbrow sci-fi: “One of the things comic books deal with—just about the only thing comic books can deal with—is the question, ‘If you’re able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, what are you gonna do with it, pal?’

“And mysteriously, it always seems to wander off into, you know, wearing tights and fighting crime. And that’s convincing when you’re 11 years old reading comic books, but then after a while it doesn’t seem reasonable; it doesn’t seem adult.”

Craving a deeper examination of these themes, Clough started to think about How Like a God when, in 1985, DC Comics revamped the Superman character, changing his origin so that instead of gradually coming into his powers, Clark Kent turned super almost overnight. “Immediately when they did that, I thought, ‘There’s something terribly psychologically wrong with this.’ I knew that there would be psychological repercussions; there’d be certain adjustment problems,” Clough says. “So I fixed it. I told it the way I really think that it would happen. It would not work out well. You would wind up in the gutter.”

Besides maintaining a web page about the novel’s writing, featuring pictures of locations and buildings in the text (www.sff.net/people/

Brenda/howlike.htm), Clough is getting ready to publish—what else?—How Like a God’s inevitable sequel.—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa