“There has to be a little bit of crime in any theory, or it’s not truly good science. You have to break the rules to get anything real done.” — Doctor Impossible
It wasn’t all that long ago that I realized there is a sub-genre of sci-fi/fantasy fiction novels about superheroes. You’d think I would’ve been aware of this, right? I mean, sure, I knew about certain Marvel and DC stories that had been novelized, and I was familiar with the Wild Cards shared-world series edited by George R.R. Martin (though I never read any). But, I didn’t know that the last few years have seen several authors try their hand at such stories. I accidentally came across one at the library a few weeks ago and thought, “Cool!”
The book is Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Grossman is a video-game designer/consultant and, at the time of publication (2007), a doctoral candidate in English literature at UC-Berkeley, specializing in Romantic and Victorian literature. Hmm. I noticed it doesn’t say he’s a huge comic fan, but still… could be interesting. At the very least, he should understand how to construct a story, right? He does, and it’s a darned good one, too.
That story is told primarily as a first-person narrative alternating between two of the major players. The first voice is that of Doctor Impossible — would-be world-conqueror and self-made super-villain extraordinaire, “sufferer” of Malign Hypercognition Disorder (i.e, “evil genius” syndrome). While Impossible is the main “bad guy” of the story, he sees himself as more of an outsider who finally found his place in (and, preferably, over) the world, rather than merely “evil”. He matter-of-factly informs us that he is the smartest person by far on the planet and the fourth most dangerous. I’m not sure how much of that is bravado, but he is definitely a formidable foe and one very smart cookie. However, when we first meet him, he is languishing in prison after his 12th defeat and failure of his 5th Doomsday Device. (Can you imagine how frustrating that must be?!)
The second narrator is Fatale — female cyborg and (somewhat) rookie superhero. Fatale has just been recruited by the Champions, the current generation’s #1 superhero team, which had disbanded several years ago but is reforming in the face of a perceived new, global threat. They aren’t quite sure what that threat is, until Doctor Impossible escapes, and they’re pretty sure he has something big in the offing. As the “new girl”, Fatale provides a lens through which the reader gets a feeling for what it’s like to be a superhero (and a cyborg, in particular), meeting your idols and being asked to join them, transitioning from tackling street crime to the “big leagues”, etc. It’s a familiar storytelling device, and it works well here.
Amidst personal reflections, observations, and memories of “origins” and past adventures, Doctor Impossible proceeds to put his next doomsday plan into motion, while Fatale and the New Champions follow clues to locate and (hopefully) stop him. Another aspect of the story is the already-in-progress mystery of the disappearance of CoreFire, the “Superman” of Grossman’s world. CoreFire is one of the founding members of the original Champions and arch-enemy of Doctor Impossible. He is nigh-invincible, which makes the possibilities of what could have happened to him very few. Was he abducted by aliens? Did he leave voluntarily? If so, why? Did Doctor Impossible or some other villain figure out a way to destroy him? Could he be trapped in another dimension? Was magic involved? If anyone knows, they ain’t talkin’. Of course, with his nemesis out of the picture, Doctor Impossible figures this may be the opportunity he’s been waiting for….
As Grossman puts it, Soon I Will Be Invincible is “a book about real people who happen to be superheroes or supervillains.” He takes advantage of the prose format to develop the characters much more than can be done in typical comic book or graphic novel format, exploring their inner thoughts, questions, frustrations, even struggles with the very things that make them “super”. He manages to blend a certain amount of realism in with the comic-book sensibility, giving the reader a “serious” story but without the grimness or cynicism of, say, the aforementioned Wild Cards or Watchmen.
Some of the characters are obviously archetypes. For example, the founding members of the Champions — CoreFire, Blackwolf, & Damsel — are analogs for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, respectively. Doctor Impossible is in many ways a stock mad-scientist/megalomaniac villain, yet we learn enough about him to be somewhat sympathetic. The characters’ noms de guerre range, imho, from fairly cool-sounding (e.g., CoreFire, Stormcloud, Baron Ether) to rather silly (e.g., Laserator, Kosmic Klaw, Go-Man). The attitudes, behaviors, powers, and rhetoric of the heroes & villains may be somewhat familiar, even stereotypical. But, Grossman manages to keep the story engaging and avoids venturing into gross caricature. (Possible exception being Doctor Impossible’s recorded speeches, which are supposed to be over-the-top. It’s in the handbook.)
There are action scenes, too, of course. But, the strength of Soon I Will Be Invincible is simply in its knowledgeable exploration of the sub-genre, creating a world of superheroes/villains and seeing what makes them tick. I don’t know that it will be hailed a sci-fi “classic”, but it has received some good press, and it is a lot of fun, especially for those of us who grew up on superhero comics and cartoons. Highly recommended!
P.S. Just found this as I was going to press: http://www.sooniwillbeinvincible.com/