The New York Times posted an article in late November titled “33 Ways to Remember the 2010s“. It starts with Item #33, “Spandex ruled everything around us” and refers to the superhero phenomenon which pervades pop culture today in the movies and on TV. The sub-genre is now sufficiently commonplace that there is public appetite for the development of edgier content featuring graphic violence, adult themes and non-conformist genre deconstructions like The Umbrella Academy on Netflix, Watchmen on HBO and The Boys on Amazon. Naturally, the source material for all these movies and shows are comics and graphic novels – not just the Marvel and DC powerhouses, but other niche publishers like Dark Horse, Valiant and Image. However, in the past decade, the genre has attracted the attention of the occasional novelist – writers with an aptitude for sci-fi, who no longer need to go into outer space or into the future, but can explore concepts, characters and plots in a contemporary world where people with superpowers exist.
A few years ago, I fell in love with just such a story – a trilogy called The Milkweed Triptych, published between 2010 and 2013 by nuclear physicist turned novelist Ian Tregillis. Incidentally, Mr. Tregillis is part of a community of speculative fiction writers living in or around New Mexico, which includes George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander); must be something in the water there! The Milkweed trilogy kicks off in the 1930’s with a German ‘mad’ scientist named Dr. von Westarp who has created a team of eight super-solders (the result of many years of illegal experimentation with orphan children). After ‘field testing’ them in the Spanish Civil War, they are unleashed by the German Reich into the European theater during World War II. The British respond by calling upon a small group of people who have found a way to tap into a trans-dimensional force which manifests itself as ‘magic’ (such as the ability to control weather on a massive scale). The consequences of the actions taken by both sides reverberate through the subsequent Cold War years before the ultimate bittersweet resolution.
And now, I’ve just finished reading another such novel with a similar timeline and story beats – The Violent Century, published in 2013 by Israeli-born and British-based author Lavie Tidhar. Both these stories are heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch and so, not surprisingly, both have their roots in Germany. Here too, it’s a German scientist Dr. Vomacht, who creates a device in the 1930’s that unlocks a variety of latent powers in a handful of people around the world. As a result of the “Vomacht wave”, every nation ends up with super-powered people, many of whom are co-opted by their governments during World War II. Thereafter, the fates of these super-soldiers and super-spies are inextricably intertwined. With the agelessness that the Vomacht wave has conferred on these special few, they remain active through the violent years of the 20th century, across the major theaters of global conflict – Europe during the Cold War, Indochina and Afghanistan.
The main protagonists of this spy story are two British operatives, Fogg and Oblivion (probably easy to guess what their powers are) and their boss, who is only referred to as the Old Man. The story of these three and the other men and women they fought and loved, is told through a series of flashback that zigs and zags across the seven decades from the 1930’s to the end of the twentieth century.
Mr. Tidhar has a staccato, stream-of-consciousness style of writing (at least in this book) that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It takes some getting used to, but soon enough feels natural and makes for a brisk and engrossing read. Mr. Tidhar creates a grim and atmospheric world; the European post-war scenes evoked for me the imagery of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Like The Milkweed Triptych books, an underlying sense of doom and tragedy laces the narrative. Over the course of the story, one realizes that there are no purely good or evil characters, only shades of grey, all anti-heroes. They do not age, but that does not mean that they cannot be killed. Either way, whether they live or die, there are no happy endings for anyone. Even though the story ends with Fogg seemingly reunited with the love of his life, the reader still feels a sense of loss…for all the suffering and loneliness experienced by these Übermensch through the years, as they are manipulated by those in power to achieve their own political ends.
In the final reckoning, it feels like there were never any heroes, only victims.