Sunday, August 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #217: All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault

The superhero novel has turned into its own distinctive subgenre of fantasy [1] over the past decade or so, presumably because everyone, even professional writers, enjoy thinking about having vast powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men.

Of course, there have been superhero novels for a long time -- if you get me started on the subject, I tend to start droning on about Eliot S! Maggin's two Superman novels from around 1980, especially the excellent Miracle Monday, and the quirky and foundational Superfolks by Robert Mayer from the same era. Some other signposts in that long history I like personally are the mostly forgotten Count Geiger's Blues by Michael Bishop,  Matthew Hughes's trilogy "To Hell and Back," parts of the long-running George R.R. Martin-edited "Wild Cards" shared-world series, Ian Tregillis's very dark WWII trilogy that begins with Bitter Seeds, and Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible.

So James Alan Gardner isn't doing anything particularly new in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, the first in a projected series set in modern-day Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. But new is hugely overrated, particularly in a genre context -- genres are about tropes and standard furniture and bouncing your version of the same ideas off of everyone else's previously existing ideas. So saying it's another superhero novel is just labeling it: there are great superhero novels (I listed a few just above) and lousy ones (many of the licensed properties based on Marvel and DC characters and written at speed).

I'll also note that Gardner isn't a new writer, though he's been gone for a while: he had a loose series of SF novels beginning with Expendable in 1997 and running through 2004's Radiant, all set in a space-operatic universe run by enigmatic aliens who could infallibly stop murderers from interstellar travel. (But had very few other rules, which opened up a lot of mischief -- the series was in large part about exploring the boundaries of that possible mischief.) I liked those books a lot: Gardner was particular good at writing strong, smart women with great first-person voices, and I was sad to see him go quiet for a decade.

All Those Explosions reads a lot like those older Gardner novels, which is great news: he has another interesting, flawed heroine to tell her story this time out, and the series promises to move forward with other, and apparently all female, voices.

The set-up reminds me of David Schwartz's Superpowers novel -- from the era where non-SF and non-comics people kept writing superhero novels, usually with thumpingly obvious titles like Hero, Captain Freedom and the like -- in that we have a brand-new super-team, made up of young people at the same place on a college campus.

But Gardner has a more solid world built under his superheroes than many novels in this subgenre -- maybe because of his SFnal writing history, maybe because this grew out of RPG campaigns, maybe just because that's how his mind works. So we start very SFnally with the infodump: we learn both the potted history of the modern world and how our narrator, Kimberlite Crystal Lam, has been connected to the supernatural pieces of that world.

It all starts with the standard urban fantasy gimmie: the usual panoply of supernatural creatures are real, and have real power. In 1982, the Elders of the Dark went public, and invited the richest of the rich to buy their way in -- and so, by now, most of the upper classes worldwide have paid millions of dollars for the Dark Conversion and the world is ruled, more or less openly and more or less as democratically as it ever was, by vampires and demons and were-creatures and the like.

(Gardner seems to be saying that history otherwise went on as in our world, which seems really unlikely, and specifically mentions tech billionaires. My first thought was that if established businesses are run and owned by actually immortal creatures of the Dark, start-ups will not have the least chance of getting any foothold at all. But then I thought of Dark private equity firms, or Dark sovereign wealth funds, and maybe I can square this world with a mostly free economic system.)

Then, about twenty years later, superheroes similarly came out of hiding -- some of them had been there for a while, much as the Dark was for millennia -- and suddenly there was a Light opposite the Dark.

Now, you might think from that description that the Light would be against the Dark, but, at least in All Those Explosions, that doesn't seem to be the case. The Light creates Sparks -- the world "superhero" is trademarked, as in our world -- with various powers at various levels, just like the Dark Conversion creates various powers at various levels, and both, in that comic-booky wish-fulfillment way, deliver powers that fit their recipients' personas and psyches. The Dark are rich people, doing rich people things: sometimes tormenting the peons just because they can, but mostly running businesses, scheming against each other, living lives of luxury, and pursuing various personal hobbyhorses. Sparks are vastly more random: they can be anyone, anywhere, and at least a sizable fraction of them go evil to become supervillains.

Because a superhero universe has to have a lot of opportunity for superpowered fights, obviously, so there need to be supervillains for superheroes to punch. A reader gets the sense that Sparks mostly worry about Sparks, and Darklings mostly scheme with or against other Darklings, and everyone else just tries to keep their heads down and keep out of the way. They do run into each other now and then, since they're both powerful, but they're not in some kind of Cold War for control of the Earth -- the Dark has that all sewed up, and no one can dispute any of it.

This, frankly, looks like a really crapsack dystopian world for anyone without powers: both Light and Dark utterly overwhelm merely human people, and can break wills like toothpicks by merely being there. This is a horrible world to be in if you aren't part of the 1% with powers.

But our heroes get powers, in a mysterious lab accident: University of Waterloo undergrads and housemates Miranda, Jools, Shar and Kim become the superheroes Aria, Ninety-Nine, Dakini and Zircon (respectively), and all seem to be pretty far up the power-spectrum. Aria is a flying, sonic-powered brick. Ninety-Nine is basically the "best at everything" Batman-style hero at maximum human potential, with equivalent levels of instant knowledge and a healing factor only slightly less impressive than Wolverine's. Dakini has some mystical energy powers, like an eastern Dr. Strange. And Zircon, our viewpoint character, turns to a super-hard mineral as she shrinks and also has a kind of super-vision that covers 360 degrees and can be detached from her body.

They get attacked by Dark forces almost immediately after their accident -- before their powers are even manifesting -- and immediately dive into action to investigate the lab accident, which of course is part of a fiendish plot by the Australian supervillain Diamond.

And it doesn't let up from there: the novel is set on the night of the winter solstice during an eclipse, and the entire action of the novel takes place that night -- starting at 8:30, after Kim's introductory infodump, and ending before dawn and a similarly short "here's what happened to us over the next couple of weeks" ending.

It's zippy and exciting and does feel faintly like someone's really good gaming session, but a lot of superhero novels aim in that direction. Kim/Zircon's voice is amusing and conversational and propels the story forward well, with lots of short sections within each chapter, each with an arch header.

All Those Explosions is a lot of fun: a quick, engrossing read that will make you wish the next book (They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded, coming in November and apparently from Jools/Ninety-Nine's point of view) was already out. And it's great to see Gardner back, and just as good as his old form.

[1] Yes, fantasy. There's no even vaguely SF explanation that works at all for a superhero universe. Even if your favorite heroes are tinkerers, the world is at its base magical. If that annoys you: suck it up, buttercup.

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