Saturday, August 16, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible

I had planned to scan something funny I brought back from Worldcon, but I haven't got my scanner set up yet, so I guess I'll do a book review first. Soon I Will Be Invincible came out in hardback last year, the debut novel from Austin Grossman. As you may tell from the title, it's a light-hearted look at superheroes, a mainstream novel that looks at some of the basic cliches of the genre and turns them on their heads, makes them fun again.

I was worried that this would turn out to be yet another parody by a writer who looks down on the genre, like Asimov's anti-Batman Batman story "Northwestward" in the anthology "Further Adventures of the Batman," or like Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. As the authors take apart the silliest tropes of the genre, you get the sense that they're talking down to you: "You're stupid for liking this stuff, but I'll take your money anyway."

Grossman doesn't do that. He's smart enough to see how silly the genre can be, but he loves it anyway, and he lets that love shine through throughout the book. The book is written in first person, from the alternating viewpoints of two main characters, the megalovillain Doctor Impossible and the cyborg superhero Fatale. Evil genius Doctor Impossible escapes from prison and immediately launches into a new plot to take over the world; with his greatest nemesis, the superhero Corefire, missing, he actually has a shot at it this time. Meanwhile, Fatale is invited to join a superteam called the New Champions (their mission: to find Corefire and stop the doctor's villainous plot), which allows her to see the unglamorous details of the heroes' behind the scenes lives.

In some ways, it's what I wanted Hero Go Home to be, except that Hero Go Home will be explicitly series fiction, while Invincible is a literary one-off. Parts of it feel a little well-worn, but parts of it are brilliant. Grossman introduces the conceit early on that being an evil genius is actually a mental disorder, Malign Hypercognition Syndrome. So that whenever he does the obviously self-defeating things that villains do (parodied well but somewhat tediously in the Evil Overlords list), he's not being stupid or a victim of bad writing; he's merely exhibiting the symptoms of his disease, and often enough, he realizes it, which makes him even more human and sympathetic.

I wasn't as thrilled with the Fatale sections of the book. They're more drab, more downbeat, and occasionally drop into pure infodump. And though Grossman does a lot of things well in this book, sometimes the action scenes overwhelm him. A big scene in the middle where Doctor Impossible fights the New Champions single-handed suffers from some curious gaps and continuity errors; other scenes which could have been set-pieces are avoided completely and we see only their aftermath.

Overall, though, it's a funny and fast read. I recommend it for superhero fans.

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