Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible is set in a comic book universe. People fall into radioactive vats or get caught in experimental explosions on a regular basis, gaining superpowers which they use for good or evil. There are several alien species, some at war with each other, some interbreeding with humans or living on Earth. There are fairies and magical artifacts, robots and cyborgs. Mad science works. The laws of physics can be defied. And yet in some key ways this isn't a comic book universe, because its inhabitants are normal, three-dimensional people, with hang-ups and flaws and boring dayjobs and backgrounds and history. The book was pitched to me as a realistic superhero novel, and it doesn't disappoint.
The book has two narrators. Doctor Impossible, an aging evil supergenius and former science nerd, is our anti-hero, breaking out of jail to enact yet another master plan to control the world. Fatale, a unique state-of-the-art cyborg, is our heroine, newly drafted into the New Champions to help find CoreFire, the universe's Superman equivalent, and stop Doctor Impossible, who's suspected to have had a hand in the disappearance. The New Champions comprise the rest of the main cast, and we get to know selected other heros and villains throughout the story, largely in flashbacks. Doctor Impossible spends a lot of time reminiscing about the good old days, when you could build a death ray, exchange banter, and escape to rule another day. (These days, it's death ray, banter, jail sentence.)
Grossman's gift, at least with this book, is the level of realism he introduces to the characters, which keeps the story from flying off the rails due to the nature of the universe. Doctor Impossible has a recognizable need to be noticed, and an equally recognizable desire to prove everyone who said he was a loser wrong. He discusses the effects of Malign Hypercognition Disorder, how you kind of fall into become a villain, why you keep going back for more. There are bits I think Grossman glosses over with Impossible, but if he hadn't glossed, Impossible wouldn't have been a recognizable archetype.
Fatale, now… She's flailing and floundering and out of place in the world, and out of place in her body because so much of it's robotic. She's the most average of any of the characters, and new to her powers, so we get an outsider's view of the heroes and villains and the lifestyle both of those hold. And Fatale's description of her inner workings, what it feels like to have a metallic, robotic body, are fantastic. There's no way you can experience that with her, in a different medium.
The characters and world come together to create a fantastic story, which on one level is a recognizable comic/movie plot, and on another is a critique and satire on heroes and villains, on motives, on humanity, and on comic books themselves. A lot of satires seem to get bogged down in hammering their points home, to the detriment of the plot and action, but this one doesn't. It is a fantastic larger-than-life tale even if you ignore the subtext and messages. I have a couple quibbles about time spans and a somewhat over-transparent clue, but they're minor (and possibly due to my copy being an ARC). It's still a great read, and I suspect the Grossman's realism elements are going to influence my own.