Lord Acton first noted that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Brenda Clough takes a much more optimistic view of human nature in her novel The Doors of Death and Life. Her heroes, Rob Lewis and Edwin Barbarossa, hold powers unequaled in human history. Lewis can sense the emotions and thoughts of others, while Barbarossa has the gift of immortality. Despite these awesome powers, the men have chosen to live in anonymity until an accident reveals Barbarossa's immortality.

Even after their powers come to light and put them in peril, Lewis is concerned about using his extra-sensory ability for fear that it will set him apart from the human race. Lewis eventually comes up against a man who lacks his powers, but has very specific ideas about how such powers should be used; the demarcation between human and superhuman becomes quite important, and Clough resolves the issue in a surprising and satisfying manner.

Clough's characters are fully realized, despite their comic book superpowers. Lewis's 14-year marriage must face the strains of his wife's discovery that he has strange powers. Barbarossa's more recent marriage has the strain of separation, in addition to the knowledge that he will long out-live his wife. Clough deals with these, and other domestic issues, in a serious and introspective manner.

All of Clough's characters have faults, but theirs are the faults of normal men and women rather than the hubris of the exceptionally gifted. Aside from their amazing powers, Lewis and Barbarossa could easily be next-door neighbors whose lives hit the usual occasional difficulty. This allows the reader to relate to them and come to care about their rather unique problems.

The Doors of Death and Life demonstrates that good science fiction can be philosophical while still providing moments of drama. The characters deal equally with life and death situations and moral dilemmas. Anyone who thinks that science fiction only refers to that Buck Rogers stuff would be pleasantly surprised to discover Brenda Clough's writing. ¦ Steven Silver is a freelance writer from Northbrook, Illinois, who will appear June 13 as contestant on Jeopardy!

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