No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014/15: Soon I Will be Invincible -- Austin Grossman

When life gives you lemons you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make an acid poison. Fling it in their eyes. [loc. 693]

Doctor Impossible, victim of a freak science accident, has tried to conquer the world twelve times and counting. At the start of the novel, he is incarcerated in a ridiculously high-security prison, reflecting on his achievements to date and fine-tuning his latest plan for world domination (and invincibility).

Meanwhile, the Champions -- a semi-retired bunch of media-savvy superheroes -- are welcoming a new recruit, Fatale. Terribly injured in a random accident, Fatale was recreated as a cyborg by a mysterious company called Protheon. She dreams about assembler code and wonders why she hasn't heard from Protheon in a while.

Doctor Impossible's latest plan for world domination is as grandiose as ever: but the Champions have another problem. Who killed Corefire, the mightiest of them all? And has Lily -- a woman of glass from the 35th century, once Doctor Impossible's lover -- truly switched sides?

I enjoyed this novel on a number of levels. It's an entertaining riff on superhero tropes (the supervillain island lair, the convoluted origin stories, the improbable science, the overprotective parents); there are sly references to real-world comics canon (Doctor Impossible's therapist is 'Steve, a sad-eyed Rogerian' [loc. 179]); Doctor Impossible himself is the uber-nerd, the sullen teenager eating lunch in the corner on his own, the revenge fantasy of everyone who's ever been shunned by the popular kids. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Soon I Will Be Invincible is that all the superpowered characters, heroes or villains, have mental health issues. (Though not all of these are what they first appear: Damsel's not bulimic, she's half-alien.) Grossman explores the notion that great power can stem from damage, that it can be a survival mechanism. 'There's a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.' [loc. 2085]

It's become a cliche to focus on the people behind the masks, but Grossman never loses sight of the human stories that underlie the larger-than-life, technicolour conflicts of heroes and villains. The Champions regularly slip up and use real names, rather than coded identities: Fatale nurses a helpless crush on Blackwolf: Doctor Impossible still wonders whether he ever really had a chance with his old schoolmate Erika.

There are some flaws in this book, and in its content. The characters' voices -- apart from Fatale and Doctor Impossible, dual narrators -- aren't especially distinct: at times they feel two-dimensional. There's a lot of backstory that's hinted at just enough to distract. And, content-wise, there are way too many typos. Unfortunately, it's the kind of book (or I'm the kind of reader) where you look for a pattern, a coded message, in the omitted letters.

No message found: so I'll stick with the metaphor of heroes as survivors.

When you can't bear something but it goes on anyway, the person who survives isn't you anymore; you've changed and become someone else, a new person, the one who did bear it after all.[loc. 1938]

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