Superheroes are pretty much everywhere you turn these days, whether it is the bright colours of the Marvel cinematic universe, the random powers of the X-Men films, the more serious tones of the DC heroes or the family dynamics of The Incredibles. And where there are superheroes there are take-downs of the mythology like Alan Moore’s Watchmen (currently being remade for TV) or the hyperviolent superhero satire The Boys. So it is probably now, more than ever, a good time to ask: what makes a hero? This is a central question in Lavie Tidhar’s recently rereleased 2013 alternate-history-with-superheroes The Violent Century.
Henry Fogg was one of the handful of people globally affected by an experiment conducted by Vomacht, a German (later Nazi) scientist in 1932. Those people underwent a range of mutations which gave them both superpowers and extended lives. Henry, as his name suggests, gained the power to control fog and mist, and after being picked up by the British secret service, goes by the name Fog (because, of course, heroes all have names associated with their powers). Fog, along with his partner Oblivion (who can make anything simply disappear), is trained and then sent into the field during World War II to observe other Übermensch (as they are collectively known). The story of his time during the war is framed by a present-day story in which he is brought in by Oblivion to meet with his handler, known as the Old Man.
This is an alternate history in which most of history as we know it remains the same. Tidhar’s (and the Old Man’s) thesis is that if both sides have superpowered help then any advantage will be negated. And there are superpowered individuals right across the world – during World War II Fog encounters other Übermensch from America, Russia and Germany. So that over the intervening years all of the events that we know – the moon landing, Vietnam, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, September 11 – end up happening pretty much as readers might remember them, just with a slight twist. Anything that happens differently becomes an echo of the real event. For example, one of the centrepieces of the narrative is the trial of Vomacht, the scientist responsible for the spread of powers, which is based on the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Tidhar is clearly an aficionado of the superhero genre and there are plenty of nods and winks to the huge canon of superhero tales:
Fogg, wanting to believe. Hope in his eyes. How easily it’s taken away. But wants it to be true, so badly it hurts. Says, Really?
– I’m here to take you to a special school. For special people. People like you. Where you will be happy, the Old Man says.
– Of course not, boy, the Old Man says. Don’t be bloody stupid. I’m here to give you a job.
… others still are vanished, missing, location unknown; perhaps gone to their own implausible palaces of ice or bat-filled caves, hidden volcanic peaks on jungle covered South Seas islands, forbidding chrome-and-metal skyscrapers or remote Gothic castles. Or perhaps more prosaically a cottage in Wales.
As with writers like Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Tidhar is particularly interested in the Jewish experience when it comes to superhero mythology. The World War II sections of the book do not shy away from events like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the concentration camp experiments of Dr Mengele. During the trial of Vomacht, Tidhar has the State call two expert witnesses – historian Stanley Lieber (in our world, Marvel founder Stan Lee) and Joseph Shuster (in our world, one of the creators of Superman) to talk about the nature of heroes:
It seems to me, Shuster says… you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew…
Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms and persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes came from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.
In the end, Tidhar comes back much more broadly to the question constantly asked through the novel, of what it means to be a hero:
– We cannot stop this war but we can fight it, in the shadows, the Old Man says. You have a choice. We all have a choice. We can give in to the darkness, or we can fight it, and elect to try and make the world a slightly less terrible place than it is. Perhaps we’ll fail. If we succeed in what we do, no one would thank us. If we die, no one will remember us.
Which all makes this book sound fairly serious. And given that it catalogues world conflicts from the mid 20th-century onwards, with a particular focus on World War II, it can be. But it also has heart, a sly sense of humour, great action set-pieces and a range of fascinating supporting players. Tidhar’s particular brand of science fiction and alternate history has come to more prominence recently with awards for Central Station and Unholy Land, but he is an author who has been garnering praise throughout his career and The Violent Century demonstrates why it is worth revisiting his back catalogue.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.