Lavie Tidhar has one of the most nimble imaginations in SF and he likes to play in provocative territory. His novel Osama, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2012, imagines a parallel reality where Osama Bin Laden is the protagonist of a series of pulp novels with titles like "Sinai Bombings" and "World Trade Center." His short story, "The Myriad Dangers" (which, full disclosure, I recently anthologized in Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction with my co-editor Erin Underwood) examines the alien invasion fantasies of a young Jewish boy on the eve of Rosh Hashana in Tel Aviv. His work consistently engages with the most politically and emotionally fraught periods of recent history—the 9/11 attacks, the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and, skewing them through the lens of the fantastic and surreal, finds something human, or startling, or simply fresh. His new novel, The Violent Century, is his most successful effort yet: a huge and ambitious noir superhero novel that really isn't about superheroes at all.
Superheroes are, of course, what vampires used to be before zombies: ubiquitous as iPhones and as redundant. Tidhar's novel comes at a time in popular culture when a stable of caped crusaders are limping towards the glue factory. Even if you only read ElfQuest as a child, you'll still know as if through osmosis the origin stories of Thor, Green Lantern, and Superman. We remember with nostalgia the days when superheroes were fringe-dwellers, before the opening chords of Danny Elfman's Batman score made them epic again.
It's to that fringe that The Violent Century returns us. In this dark and elegiac story, Tidhar's superheroes are largely undercover agents, recruited to serve their countries during World War II. A subatomic wave, released by a German scientist named Dr. Vomacht, has altered the DNA of a select portion of humanity and created a bunch of "Übermenschen" (that is, supermen—with all their Nietzschean connotations). Unless deliberately killed, the "Changed" are immortal and able to work miracles. They can conjure fog, move with preternatural quickness, and rewind time. They are quickly snapped up by their respective governments and we follow, in particular, two British Übermenschen named Oblivion and Fogg, who become friends after they're recruited by "The Old Man"—another Changed who heads the shadowy "Bureau of Superannuated Affairs."
Metro's review of The Violent Century describes the book as "The X-Men written by John le Carré" and, while not inaccurate, this description doesn't begin to hint at how much deeper a game Tidhar is playing. Yes, one can't read the novel without flashing on the Auschwitz sequence in Bryan Singer's X-Men movie, or on the final images of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (either the 1963 novel or the 1965 film)—and yes, we will indeed visit both Auschwitz and the Berlin Wall before the novel ends. Yet, far from being derivative, Tidhar seems to deliberately evoke familiar works as a way of forcing us to think about how we process history. This is the Violent Century, after all, and, while the novel certainly works as a pastiche of spy and superhero capers, its biggest coup is to comment on how we use such fictions as a way of reckoning with our problematic history.
Take for example Tidhar's narrative device, his way of, every so often, popping his reader's awareness into his steady stream of third-person omniscient tense:
Peacetime. Jack Payne and the BBC Orchestra. "Happy Days Are Here Again." The Old Man in the back seat [of a car]. A folder in his lap. He uses folders the way others use guns. Awake eyes, the deep blue and startling. Fields go past. The road from London . . . The Old Man looks at the folder. The photo of a young man stares back at him. In black ink, a name. Henry Fogg. The Old Man shuts the folder. We never learn his own name. He's buried it deep. Records can't be trusted, not any more. We only know him as the Old Man. (p. 27)
Tidhar does several things here to create a sense of the reader as part of the story. The fragmentary nature of the narration itself mimics the short passages of comic-book panels, but it is closer to stream of consciousness—our own split-second thinking patterns—than anything else. At first disorienting (fragments tend to speed narrations rather than give us time to acclimatize), this style quickly draws us in. The reader, in essence, clings to the text as it goes plunging down a rabbit hole. Secondly, by using the distinctly un-royal "we," Tidhar's narration gives us a sense that we are present, even complicit, in the action. As the novel turns out to be far more concerned with history than, say, origin stories, you could easily theorize that we are.
For another tell, consider how quickly Tidhar dispenses with the matter of Übermenschen origins. Here are the two (rather glorious) paragraphs spent on what happens to our main protagonist, Fogg, as he is changed by Dr. Vomacht's particle wave.
Standing by the train tracks in his special hiding place, the train from London journeys towards him and the air ripples, a wave of something he can't describe hits him and time slows, the world seems frozen, he can see each leaf on the trees, the movement of a worm under an upturned rock, small white blind thing burrowing into the earth, can smell each individual smell of fresh earth and rain and steam and oil and pupa, his hands raised as if he's dancing, fog clings like fur to his arms, when it comes it is not at all what he expects, it is what he dreamed of but never believed and, now that it’s here, he is scared.
What makes a hero? the boy Fogg thinks. Time resumes, the train speeds past, deeper into Surrey, the people inside the windows stare out like eyes, did they feel it too, what has happened, what is happening? He raises his hand and the fog follows it like a dog, he lowers his hand an opens his palm and the fog spreads outwards, forms a shape in the air, seems to nod. (p. 66)
First of all: you couldn't ask for better prose than this. Tidhar can wind a sentence as tautly as a bowstring. Secondly: notice how we don't get any answers. This is the sum total of what we know about Fogg. Tidhar never explains the Fogg/fog connection—if the powers of concealment now bestowed on this man are due to the atmospheric conditions under which he was changed (the foggy morning) or if Übermenschen attributes derive from the individual's personality (the fact that the introverted Fogg is "hiding" in his "special" place when he's hit). If this were really a superhero novel we'd get long explanations (George R.R. Martin's Wildcards series comes to mind) and maybe an extended Toby Maguire sulk. But Tidhar isn't interested in mythologies—only in how great change affects us in the here and now. What makes a hero? The random application of a particle wave. From here on out, the rest is, literally, history.
Even more than Alan Moore's Watchman (another comparison sure to be made with this novel) The Violent Century attempts to paint a picture of what superheroes would be like if they were real people. The World War II setting, where we spend the most time, could not be more perfect as a lens for this. Tidhar's Übermenschen are a natural fit for an era when empires were fixated (if they ever stopped) on supremacy. We get scenes of Übermenschen recruited and abducted by the Nazis, chilly noir settings where Fogg and other weather-altering Übermenschen can use their powers to the fullest. We get Mengle, Stalin, a real-life head of the Paris Gestapo—all seamlessly interwoven into a world where some characters can fly. Still, it's history that has the superpowers here. Tidhar's cast, with their nifty talents and incredibly clever names (a female Russian Übermenschen who can breathe underwater is called Rusalka, for example) have no more agency against it than anyone else. Unlike "real" superheroes—who may arise from history (Superman sprang from the Depression era)—Tidhar's Übermenschen are absorbed by it. Immortal, they move through the pitfalls of each era, from D-Day to the Vietnam War and beyond. They get caught up in drugs, in the opium trade, in romantic entanglements and secret wars. In one of the most memorable passages, the endless conflicts of the modern era begin to wear on Fogg's fastidious and chilly partner, the significantly named Oblivion. Numbing himself with opium in a Vietnamese hotel room
. . . the inner world takes him and he:
Is bitten by a radioactive spider, falls into an acid vat, is trapped inside by an Intrinsic Field Subtractor, is given a power ring by a dying alien, he is strapped to a table and experimented on by military scientists until be becomes the ultimate warrior, he is sent as a baby from his dying planet to Earth, he sees his parents murdered in front of his eyes leaving the opera, he is bombarded by cosmic rays, he dials a number in a telephone box, he is exposed to a gamma-ray bomb as it detonates, he eats spinach, he discovers a strange meteor, he finds an ancient mask that belongs to a god, he . . . . he . . . . he . . . . (p. 216)
That Tidhar treats his characters with such psychological depth is one of the great pleasures of the novel. Comic books still exist in The Violent Century, making this exactly the sort of meltdown a conflicted Übermenschen would have. Furthermore, by stripping Oblivion of a Thor-like imperviousness to events, Tidhar reveals the wish-fulfillment impulse behind every superhero. Indeed, since humans obtained sentience we've used stories to distance ourselves from pain. By making his heroes as vulnerable as we are, Tidhar gives us a powerful reminder of that fact. As the narrative skips back and forth through time, from one dark, historically-based adventure to another, we realize what Tidhar's really getting at—how he's hoodwinked us with our own fantasies.
All this time we had expected a savior. A man. A hero. But what's a hero? Someone . . . [t]o make it stop. To disarm the hijackers, to land the plane safely. To avert this monstrosity.
It's a bird. It's a plane. No it's—
Nothing. No one. (p. 249)
This is serious stuff, grim even—but the sheer skill of Tidhar's storytelling compels us. In case the previous excerpts haven't convinced you let me lay it out loud and clear: this is a novel that can break your heart and then, ever so subtly, include a cameo by Stan Lee. Tidhar clearly knows as much about supermen of all kinds as he does about the circumstances that produce them. The effortless way he reveals this knowledge makes you wonder if he too has special powers. True to title, the novel covers nearly one hundred years of history, blends several genres, and dozens of characters both fictional and real. It should collapse under the weight of its own ambition. It doesn't. It merely inspires awe. Tidhar may not be an Übermenschen himself, but, like the intrepid Fogg, he's one of the best we’ve got.
Hannah Strom-Martin's fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, OnSpec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (forthcoming), and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her nonfiction has been published in Strange Horizons, The North Bay Bohemian, and The Sacramento News and Review, among others. With Erin Underwood, she is the co-editor of The Pop Fic Review and the recent anthology Futuredaze: A Collection of YA Science Fiction. She lives in California with her husband and the obligatory herd of cats named after fantasy characters.