Monday, 9 November 2015

The Violent Century (Hodder & Stoughton) by Lavie Tidhar | review

It’s a shame Patrick Stewart played Karla rather than Smiley in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, because it deprives us of the perfect one-man illustration of The Violent Century: what if George Smiley and Professor Charles Xavier were one and the same man? In the Old Man’s world, Stanley Leiber (who adds another excellent cameo to his already impressive list), Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster are renowned experts on the superheroes, rather than their creators.

The divergence from our history takes place in 1932, when the German scientist Doktor Vomacht triggers the event that creates a breed of super-powered, ever-youthful humans. Our main interest is in Henry Fogg, who in keeping with the nominative determinism sometimes seen in such matters develops the ability to control fog, mist and smoke.

A seemingly trivial power, but one with deadly possibilities. There’s no better power for a spy than to have somewhere to hide wherever he goes, and so Fogg is in 1936 recruited by the Old Man, and taken not to Xavier’s School for the Gifted, but The Farm, a training camp in Devon for super-powered soldiers and spies.

There he develops a bond with Oblivion, a handsome fellow whose power is to make things disappear – another useful trick for a spy. Within five years they’re watching battles between the Union of Socialist Heroes and the rocket men of the Reich over Leningrad, and as the century passes it will take them to other wars, to Laos, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The title might suggest comparisons with a comic like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, which showed heroes living the length of the twentieth century, but in tone this is more reminiscent of Ed Brubaker’s superb run on Captain America, which similarly examined the intersection of war, spies and superheroes.

Comics aside, it covers similar ground to Declare by Tim Powers, albeit at a much quicker pace, and substituting Marvel and DC for that book’s Arabian Nights. Both novels tell their stories mostly in flashback, reflections prompted by the handler who makes contact again after a long period of silence.

The main difference between the two is perhaps the one slightly disappointing aspect of this book: Declare eventually moved past the flashbacks, while the present day events here prove to be little more than an epilogue.

One frequent problem with superhero fiction in prose is that it simply can’t keep up with the comics; it could take paragraphs, even pages, to fully describe the contents of even a single panel. Tidhar cleverly uses French dashes for dialogue, short sentences, short chapters (one hundred and sixty-four of them) and the present tense to close that gap: “Oblivion kicks his door open. Slides out. Fogg follows. Crouching. Looking up, shadow on the rooftop.”

He also has a particular way with a subtly devastating sentence. In his short story “Dark Continents”, from the post-colonial anthology We See a Different Frontier, would-be colonists consider a “land, empty but for its people”. Here, when Fogg is sent to eastern Europe and ends up joining local partisans on a suicide mission, he thinks: “Anything to justify this sojourn to the outer realms of the war, where nothing much happens but for the mass transportation of the Jews.”

The book’s engagement with historical events is serious-minded, past tragedies never reduced to a colourful backdrop to adventure or a playground for overgrown children. In the Marvel universe, Hitler survived, his consciousness transferred to a clone, and he became a super-villain: the Hate-Monger! There’s nothing daft like that here. Yes, Werhner Von Braun does build himself that squad of useless rocket-men, but his brief presence serves to connect the post-war rush to acquire superheroes to the similar scramble for rocket scientists that took place here on Earth-Prime.

When the Jewish hero Sabra leaps into the air to battle blond Schneesturm over the Warsaw Ghetto, it isn’t just cool – though it is that too, very cool – it’s desperate and moving. When Fogg’s fellow super-agent Tank is captured and taken to Auschwitz, the book knows we can bear to read about the pain of a tortured superhero, and uses that as a lever to force us into thinking about the real atrocities of that place.

Some of that might make the book rather gruelling, but there’s plenty of dry humour, and lots of action, such as fog giants battling ice giants in Paris, or “Dracul” versus the Wolfskommando in Transylvania. There’s even romance, as Fogg falls for the mysterious Sommertag and what she represents: she’s the one person who can step out of the war whenever she likes.

Coming hard on the heels of the equally good but stylistically very different Martian Sands, The Violent Century is an excellent novel that demonstrates, once again, the impressive versatility of its author. Stephen Theaker

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #249, back in 2013.

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