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Soon I Will Be Invincible

Austin Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, is a fun, quick book that references the whole of superhero comics (and some other fantasy) with the usual tropes and plenty of in-jokes. (One such is the reference to criminals being “a cowardly and superstitious lot,” said with plenty of irony.) It redoes many of the deconstructions of superheroes over the years with a light, fun air.

The best part of the book is one of the two central characters, and one of the first person narrators: Doctor Impossible. At his core, he wants to be seen and known, for the people who ignored him all his life to take notice. This is why, he explains, he wears red tights and a cape. It’s harder to fight in a cape, but it makes an impression. He’s resigned to the more ridiculous tropes of his nature. His attitude throughout is, “Well, villains do this sort of thing, I might as well.” Much more than the heroes, he feels human, especially in passages where he wrestles with the purpose behind his pursuit of Evil Science.

The difference between the quality of his thoughts and speech is pronounced. What he wants to do, he does not do. He starts giving away his plans, even though he knows he shouldn’t. He’s overwhelmed by science, and by his own latent greatness. Hear the love and pride in his voice when he describes the liquid that made him what he is:

The target solution was a unique fluid. A revolutionary fuel source, infused with the zeta radiation only I understood, a fluorescent cocktail of rare poisons, unstable isotopes, and exotic metals, it roiled in the beaker, swirling purple and green. Toxic isn’t the word for it; it was malign, practically sapient. A single drop would have powered an ocean liner for a thousand years.

After becoming mesmerized by the liquid, he peeled off a glove and touched it (something of a no-no in science, so I hear), and it exploded all over him; it made him a new person through pain and physical transformation. I can understand him even at that point. But when he speaks… It’s like an idiot has hijacked his vocal cords, and he spews cliche banality after inanity. He doesn’t understand why he says such silly things either, which makes him even more believable.

All throughout Soon I Will Be Invincible, Doctor Impossible does stupid things, things he knows are stupid, even as he’s doing them, so he can take over the world. To do this, he needs to be invincible. He’s practically invincible already, though he takes several beatings. He’s fast, impervious to bullets, and the smartest man in the world. But he’s a normal guy, under all that. This passage endeared him to me, and made him feel more real:

My style of work takes a lot of preparation.  I build things and test them out. I have to order parts, or cast them myself. I have to pull all-nighters to debug my robots’ pathfinding routines before an invasion. It isn’t that interesting to other people.

He’s good people and, more importantly, he’s my sort of people. Like he says, he has to debug his robot swarm’s code like everybody else. He’s not that evil, either, or I’ve become so sympathetic to him that I don’t care that he wants to drop the world into another ice age.

The Fatale storyline, on the other hand… Meh.  I thought it was fine, and interesting to get an inside view of the hero team, but it’s a rehash of The Authority, by Warrent Ellis, in the same way The Authority is a reinterpretation of all the previous superhero teams. I thought The Authority did a better job of showing what a superhero team is like from the inside–better even than the continual X-Men soap opera. The Boys, by Garth Ennis, takes a darker view of superheroes than Soon I Will Be Invincible, and I’d believe that version before Soon I Will Be Invincible’s. All of it builds on The Watchmen, of course, but most superhero books nowadays do.

Fatale is the other first person narrator. Oddly, given this amount of narrative focus, she’s mostly insignificant (or we feel she is, from inside her head). She spends the whole book having emotional crises, but that didn’t grate on me like it usually does. Possibly because she and Doctor Impossible have basically the same struggles of identity; they could have each gone the other way: Fatale as a villain, Impossible as a hero. Lily’s flip-flopping between hero and villain backs this up. There are no ready-made villains or heroes; everyone makes discrete choices.

One gripe: I hate present tense narrative. It doesn’t give immediacy, it’s distracting, and only that. Stop present tense in your neighborhood. We can make a difference.

The way Grossman handles backstory, and the way we’re brought into this world, is perfect. He explains current events by referencing previous events and people, which he assumes we’re aware of, while giving us enough detail to make us understand what he’s talking about. Excellent technique. It’s subtle, artfully done, and unobtrusive–exactly the way backstory should be. And the slow reveal of history through Doctor Impossible’s memory, the twist of characters at the end (again, playing with identity), all these make this an exciting, fast read.

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