Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

It's not common for a novel to feel like a novella. An overgrown novella, yes -- something that has a novella's worth of story and energy to it, with another forty or fifty thousand words loosely arranged around it like packing material in a box. Those have been common in the speculative area over the last couple of generations.

But a book with the fizz and get-to-it staccato rhythm of a good novella with no time to waste that maintains that for a novel's length? And keeps that novella-style focus on a few characters and a single conflict? That's a lot rarer. Before today, I might have said that I didn't think it was possible.

But Lavie Tidhar's 2013 superhero novel The Violent Century is exactly like that: lots of quick sentence fragments in clusters to describe places and people and feelings in the fewest possible precise words. A narrative that covers a century in smash-cuts to just the highlights. A cast that the reader realizes is mostly three guys in one room, at the end of the story, with maybe half-a-dozen other people important along the way. It's a novella: only it's 316 pages long.

Century is of the Big Bang theory of superheroes: there was An Event in 1932 that created all of them, all at once, across the world. We know a little about the event, as the book goes on, and we know many of those affected. We know that they don't age at all, from that moment -- though some seem to have been kids at the time, and they clearly grew up -- though they can die. And their powers are all singletons: we don't see any flying bricks, or mentalists with heat vision. Each Ubermensch can do A Thing, which the book hints is related to who they were and what they were doing at the time of the event.

Why be coy? The event was triggered by a machine, built by a Dr. Vomacht in Germany. (Note that name, Cordwainer Smith fans.) For whatever reason, he's never been able to recreate it. The machine made some kind of a wave, that blanketed the world. Some people were affected. We don't know how many: one in a million, maybe? One in ten million? Enough that there are a bunch of Ubermenchen, all over the world, of every nation and people.

(As one character notes, that makes them essentially useless: since every nation has Ubermenschen, they will never tip the balance of any war. One might quibble that "not winning WWII for you" is not the same as "useless," but it is for that character, and maybe in this world in general.)

We begin in "the present day," in London. Tidhar is Israeli-born and a Londoner as an adult; the books' focus will be on the Brits and the world seen through their eyes.

One Ubermench, Oblivion, finds another, Fogg, in a hole-in-the-wall bar, and drags him back to see their once-and-again boss, the Old Man. They haven't seen each other in forty years; we'll learn why. The rest of the book is a series of flashbacks: once in a while Tidhar implies they're retelling these stories to each other, or reliving them, to sort through the history as the Old Man investigates what happened, and, more specifically, what Fogg did.

As that "useless" comment implies, they were active in many times and places, without changing any of the history we know. Century is mostly set during WWII, with the back half touching down at moments ever more years apart to show the same patterns continuing afterwards on a less exalted level.

This is a story of men and war. There are only a couple of female characters at all, and they have no agency and don't do much. One is central to the book, but central is not the same as responsible. Frankly, at the end, I wanted her story, not that of the men running around in the mud trying to kill each other with various superpowers for a hundred years. But Tidhar is not telling her story: she is the perfect moment of happiness for one of his male characters, not really a person in her own right.

Violent Century will probably annoy a lot of the readers who like superhero novels. It has that tight, stark novella structure. It doesn't glory in the fighting. It has the tone and manner of a British spy novel, like some two-universes-over version of Le Carre. The superpowers are mostly dull and limited -- a power-nullifier, a snowstorm-maker, a tough guy. (There is a minor-league speedster and a record-scratch time-skipper, but neither one is important to the story or does much.) It frankly doesn't have the things that most readers are looking for in superhero stories: clean moral lines, big fights, angst, cool costumes.

What it has is interesting and well-constructed, and it has a feverish energy in its sentences. I thought, in the end, that it didn't add up to as much as I was hoping, but perhaps my hopes were unreasonably high.

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