In his books The Joyful Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put forward the concept of the Übermensch, which would have a far-reaching impact on literature, science and politics. When Nietzsche’s works were translated into English, the word became ‘Overman’ or ‘Superman’; George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write a 1903 play Man and Superman, based on the concept. In 1933, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel published a comic book with a bald telepathic villain that they named Superman; later they figured it would be a better idea to make Superman the good guy. Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra suggested that humanity should set itself a goal of physiological advancement, to strive to become Übermensch, rather than to allow itself to ‘fall’ into a life of comfort and security, devoid of risks.
Half a century later, the Nazis wholeheartedly adopted the idea, fit it into their ‘master race’ plan and even embarked on some horrific experiments to try and create their own supermen.
Now, imagine the consequences if the experiments had worked.
In Ian Tregillis’ debut novel Bitter Seeds (2010), a brilliant but unhinged German doctor decides to try and build supermen (and women). In 1920 while the German countryside is devastated by poverty and starvation, he starts offering bed and board to orphaned or unwanted children at his farmhouse. He then experiments on them, trying to find the parts of the brain that he believes can allow humans to tap into higher order physical abilities, such as telekinesis, levitation, pyrokinesis, telepathy and precognition. Behind the farmhouse, a makeshift cemetary appears and grows, the result of failed experiments. The doctor discovers that when specific parts of the brain are excited by electric current, it does indeed allow certain subjects to tap into their Willenskräfte (willpower) and exhibit superhuman powers. Over the next decade, his half-dozen ‘children’, powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries strapped to their waists, hone their skills (mainly through coercion and punishment). The mad doctor comes to the attention of the Nazis, who become his patrons and thus the Gotterelektrongruppe (“divine electricity unit”) is formed as a independent unit within the SS.
Soon after the start of WW2, the German army with this superhuman unit at its leading edge, scythes through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest. Suddenly we see a very different history unfold across Europe with the British army completely decimated at Dunkirk in May 1940. Britain is on the verge of losing the war.
Meanwhile, a British secret service agent named Raybould Marsh, while on a mission to Europe comes into possession of some fragments of film and photographs that show the supermen in training exercises. Coupled with the news from the front, the British realize that they are up against something otherworldly. By sheer chance, Marsh recalls a conversation with a friend from his Oxford days who had alluded to secret cults and ancient texts; apparently, there are a very small group of people in Britain who can speak an ancient language to call upon and request favors from inter-dimensional beings called Eidolons. Before long, the secret service have pressed these ‘warlocks’ into national service, forming a ‘black ops unit’ code-named Milkweed which uses the Eidolons to protect England, mainly by playing with the weather, but also some other extraordinary acts. However, the Eidolons are not easily controlled and their ‘asking price’ (which is live human blood) goes up each time the Milkweed warlocks request for some help.
And so the story progresses, at breakneck speed across two more books The Coldest War and Necessary Evil. Marsh and his Milkweed colleagues are pitted against their superhuman enemies while trying to control the otherworldly Eidolons. One of the German superhumans, a clairvoyant named Gretel emerges as their most dangerous adversary; how can you defeat someone who can see the futures…all possible futures?
As ridiculous as this story line may seem to a casual reader, Mr. Tregillis has such command over his language that the entire narrative becomes utterly believable. His descriptions of places and situations are vivid, almost tactile. And the characterizations are deep and realistic – other than Gretel and the mad doctor who are purely evil and beyond redemption, the other key characters are drawn in shades of grey; Marsh and his acquaintances exhibit equal measures of love, jealousy, naiveté, stupidity, panic and thoughtlessness. Every action has its consequences, which come back to haunt them hours, months or years later. The narrative spans several years, into a very different Cold War. Ultimately, all the loose ends are tied up by the end of the third book, but everyone has paid a price and as often is the case, the most heroic people are also the ones who have suffered the most and whose brave exploits remain a secret from the general public. It’s also refreshing to read a scifi story where the US plays absolutely no part!
This is an altogether engrossing and compelling scifi thriller, which will appeal to fans of alternate history, military fiction and mystery thrillers.
A little bit of information about Ian Tregillis. He has a PhD in physics and works at the Los Alamo s National Laboratory in New Mexico, the home of the Manhattan Project and one of only two institutions where classified nuclear weapons research has been conducted in the US. In 2005, he attended the famous Clarion Workshop, a 6-week long annual workshop for aspiring scifi and fantasy writers, conducted each year by a who’s who of established authors of the genre. Five years later, Tregillis published Bitter Seeds, completed its two sequels in the next three years. He is now considered part of the growing band of scifi/ fantasy authors based in New Mexico, whose most famous member is George R.R. Martin, but also consists of other well known authors like John Scalzi, Ty Franck & Daniel Abraham (who publish as James S.A. Corey) and S.M. Stirling.
I am now looking forward to reading Ian Tregillis’ latest book The Mechanical which is the first book of his new trilogy titled The Alchemy Wars.