He feels the throb of humanity's terror, of pulses quickening across the oceans—Superman exists, and he's not American. (p. 383)
Let's get the take-home part of the review out of the way: you should read this book, because it’s one of the most charming, playful, smart and socially aware SFF books out there. That said, when you do, there is going to be a moment when you realize that Samit Basu has essentially written an origin story without explaining, in any way whatsoever, the actual origins of his super-powered people.
Four hundred and three passengers are traveling on British Airways flight 142 from London to Delhi, when they fall asleep and wake up to find themselves embodiments of the superpowers they were dreaming about. That's it. No more spoilery explanations or mysteries—here you go, some people suddenly have super-abilities . . . so now what? You have of course, the super-soldiers who wish to respectively take over and defend the world (named Jai and Vir for an added tribute to 1975 blockbuster action film Sholay), the civilians grappling with powers beyond their ken (Premlata Aunty can raise zombies through her singing), and then there is the appropriately-named Aman, who as embodiment of the geeky internet says plaintively, "We could stop global warming, make the Sahara a rice bowl, save endangered animals, stop genocide, find alternatives to oil, stop the damned recession. The kind of things superheroes would do in comics, except that Rural Infrastructure Development League comics wouldn’t really sell well next to Bondage Wonder Woman" (p. 138).
What makes this book so much fun to read is that Basu never forgets about that sort of practical, logical approach to what is, in essence, unexpected wealth management. Even as he gleefully constructs (and deconstructs) the traditional arch-rival, clash of enemies narrative, he constantly gives his other characters a very relatable impatience with the whole tedium of it.
"Who's the greatest Indian leader ever?"
"Our survey says . . . Gandhi. Ask yourself this. If Gandhi had your powers, would he be flying around above a Pakistani nuclear site wiping his foggy glasses and trying to start World War Three, or would he be doing something slightly more productive?" (p. 17)
The book follows a rather Pratchett-like arc where the expected plot points of conflict, tension, and climax are all played out complete with glitter and jazz hands in true filmi-style, even as the characters are busy mocking and subverting those tropes. I'm not going to spoil the ending, but the way that the clichéd set piece of male superhero chasing male supervillain through urban landscapes with suitably priapic explosions is undercut by the women is one of the most enjoyable subversions I've had the pleasure of reading.
Speaking of Turbulence's female characters, though there are times when the lazy stereotypes that male writers use as shorthand for female character development are insufficiently challenged, on the whole Basu demonstrates a consistent awareness of feminism—and the lack thereof—in mainstream superhero narratives. Namrata the Plucky Girl Reporter and Uzma the Alluring Star have arcs that take them to complicated places without flattening them into cardboard cutouts, and Tia, the literally irrepressible Bengali supermom, deserves the glory of being an internet meme in her ubiquitous heroism. My heart, however, belongs to Zothanpuii, the Mizo lady who earned her superskills by surviving the mundane atrocities that Delhi men are known to favor women from the North-East with. She says little, but her very existence is a balm to the politics of representation that play out in Bollywood as much as Hollywood. In a world where the Marvel franchise thinks that Ant-Man is a more important film to make than Wonder Woman, it is unfortunately exceptional that the big climatic Team Justice League of Avenging Mutant Superheroes Uniting coalition happens with three men and four female superheroes (one of whom is an anime-eyed child who goes around calling everyone Didi and Uncle).
Though there are times when I would have asked for more levity when it comes to the inevitable number of corpses that such a yarn is supposed to offer to the altar of thrills, the book never takes itself seriously enough to warrant commitment to Team Reluctant Superhero or Team Ideological Supervillain. Basu suffers from the comedian's A Joke at Any Cost attitude that injects flippancy into the most heartfelt love scene, and he has a thwarted screenwriter's passion for visually exciting action sequences that seem over-detailed and long-winded on a page of text, but these flaws only estrange you from the character's travails enough to give breathing room to step back and appreciate the ambition of his meta-narrative.
The greatest strength and the biggest danger that Basu's writing faces is his dolphin-like ability to leap between the Doylist and Watsonian levels of storytelling, to jump from the heart of a character to the soul of the story within one dizzying paragraph. Like watching a 3D movie without glasses on, this can lead to a blurred (albeit brighter) effect—you are constantly reminded of the meta-narrative and the politics of storytelling, even as you are urged to take the characters and plot seriously. It doesn't always work; several times after the narrative pointed out the over-the-top nature of superhero violence, I found myself bored by the ensuing battle descriptions. When he gets it right, though, you are rewarded by little hilarious, ironic zingers tucked away inside a paragraph that, like a hajmola after a heavy paneer-filled dinner, serve as wake-up call and digestive.
"We are here to protect you" sounds right, but from his experiences in Kashmir and the North-Eastern states Vir knows civilians do not like being protected by men in uniform. (p. 454)
The highest compliment I can pay Basu's work is that he writes with a fanfiction sensibility. This does not mean that his work is suffused with well-written, female-gazey porn (more's the pity), but that he unites a fiercely political interrogation of his source materials with an unabashed delight in his affection for those tropes and themes. He doesn't suffer from the pomposity of the original artist whose Immaculate Imagination has never been sullied by popular influences. In his previous Gameworld trilogy (2004-7), Basu layered pastiche upon parody upon homage upon satire until sometimes entire pages required footnotes to document all the metatextual allusions and references. In this book, he is more restrained, and focuses his sharp, inquiring lens on the question that, predictably, one of his characters voices towards the middle of the book: "None of us chose to spend our lives helping people before we got our powers—why should we do it now? Because comics say we should?" (p. 364).
The most compelling reason to read this book is for me the most personal. It comes from the sense of safety a reader gets when the author's awareness of social responsibility that storytelling carries matches a shared political sensibility. It is hard to articulate the feeling of relief I got when I finished the book and realized that not a single white character had a speaking role, that though London had been under curfew, presumably with faceless white people screaming in the background, the movers and shakers were all matter-of-factly brown. And the grin that wrapped itself across my face when the Kohinoor diamond is stolen (back!) was clearly shared by Basu when he was writing it.
Far too often superhero narratives borrow from real life events in a way that milks tragedy and horror for a cheap, individualistic bathos. World War II and the Holocaust, and 9/11 especially, have become the backdrop for the angst of straight white men and the manpain their superhero origin stories burden them with. This novel contains references to the Indo-Pakistan conflict, to the bomb blasts in Mumbai and Delhi, to match-fixing and communal bigotry and the perennial outrages poverty evokes, but it does not exploit them voyeuristically. Turbulence, refreshingly, is an aptly named book about people reacting to the tumult of a world that is, howsoever magical their ability, far greater and more complex and out of their collective grasp. Though Basu never forgets the fucked-up atrocities surrounding his characters, his touch is deft and light enough to bring them in and out of focus in the way that real people are able to notice and forget about the banality of evil they are immersed in.
But then the subcontinent has never had any illusions of safety or prosperity; people know that disaster is just a heartbeat away, and simply cannot afford to panic when something terrible happens. They do not have the luxury of worrying about the collapse of their safe world—their world has never been safe, and lives have to be lived and rising petrol prices gawked at. The usual protocol for assaults on cricketers has been followed—Pakistani terrorists have been blamed, the Indian opposition has called the government spineless, Australian cricket officials have cancelled a tour and lots of Facebook groups have been started. (p. 320)
Though Basu is clearly a fan of Western superheroes, familiar with oldies like The A-Team as much as reboots such as Whedon's Avengers (2012), he is able to craft a truly syncretic style that as nonchalantly references Bollywood and the Mahabharat as it does Chuck Norris. In this, he is writing for the Indian English reader, and his humor sparkles best when it comes desi-ishtyle, thumbing its nose at the Ambanis and Vedanta and the "in-your-face, slick, Armani-enabled imperial-ambitions, global Bollywood." What he turns out in Turbulence is what a literary love-child of Salman Rushdie and Anuja Chauhan would be—Midnight’s Children meets Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013). And if you want to call it popcorn entertainment, you should specify that it’s the kind sold by a redi-wallah after the monsoon, cooked in a giant iron kadhai with grey salt, and liberally spiced with an amount of masala that your mom disapproves of.
Amba Azaad cut her teeth on litcrit by way of online fandom, and moonlights as a fanfiction writer. She lives in Delhi, and can be found on Twitter as @AmbaAzaad.