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Soon I Will Be Invincible: A Review

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman
Pantheon Books, 2007
Hardcover, 288 pages

Since movies like Megamind and Despicable Me, which focuses on the supervillain as protagonist have become popular this year, it’s no surprise that I found Soon I Will Be Invincible.    This is also the first book that will fulfill my Speculative Fiction Challenge.

I really wanted to like this book.  I really did.  The first chapters seemed promising: villain protagonist that the author had a sense of humor about, a half woman/half cyborg superhero that I cared about, and an obvious love of the genre.

Neurotic Supervillains are so hot right now.

The problem: I felt like I was reading first chapters for most of the book.  My main problems:

A) We didn’t need to be told every other chapter how Dr. Impossible was a picked on nobody who later became a supervillain. His origin story was stretched way too thin over too many chapters. And dear lord the lists. There are only so many times you can rehash your litany of cartoon supervillainy before it just gets repetitive.  For instance, page 152, when Dr. Impossible was reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend Lily:*

Who is she trying to kid?  I’ve seen her tear the door off a Wells Fargo truck bare-handed, laughing, dragging a guardsman out by his shirt.  I was there when she took the depleted-uranium rounds that chipped and scored the right side of her collarbone.  We rode the roof of a D train together out of Manhattan that time, while the Metaman was still scouring Broadway for us, and we leaped off the Manhattan bridge together when they finally found us.  We crawled ashore at Williamsburg, to the cheers of drunk party-goers…

If that was the only such list, I could see it as an effective way to show Dr. Impossible reminiscing about his partner in crime and discomfort seeing her sit with this universe’s equivalent of the Justice League.  However, this is not the first time we hear about Lily–we learn what we think is her origin story way back in Chapter 1.  I could also see it as an effective way to show Dr. Impossible’s character: a supergenius bent on world domination with cartoon supervillainy, but in reality was an ignored socially awkward guy who seems to get off more on the attention than the success.  But again, that was already established, back in Chapter 1.

Grossman I think handicapped himself by alternating the chapters between the heroes and Dr. Impossible.  There are 21 chapters and Dr. Impossible bragging about/pitying himself while he builds so vaguely scientific superweapon is not enough to fulfill eleven chapters.  Each chapter does have a nugget of something interesting: meeting the legendary Baron Ether, finishing his fetch quest for the key ingredients for his weapon, battling the heroes.  But this is was maybe four or five chapters worth of material, tops. There just was not enough depth to him to justify spending over half the book in his head.  Also, devoting so much time to Dr. Impossible led to the book’s other major problem.

B) With eleven chapters devoted to Dr. Impossible, we only had ten chapters to learn about the Champions (the Justice League team), their predecessors the Super Squadron, their collective back story as a team, and original origin stories.  The result was ten chapters of exposition dump about characters that a)I didn’t care about and b) were not relevant to the story as it were.**  I like that the author included all the heroes to show how expansive this world with superheroes is. But you shouldn’t be introducing new names to drop three-quarters of the way through the book.   Here’s the back story that was necessary: why Fatale was asked to join the team,*** why we should be wary of Lily, and why the team broke up in the first place.  That’s enough back story to stretch through the first five or six hero chapters.  The last five or six hero chapters could then focus on watching this team act knowing these dynamics.  Instead, Lily’s back story is seemingly disposed of in the first villain chapter, Fatale’s in the second chapter, and the back story of Champions is told in 12 pages as Lily and Fatale watch an unauthorized DVD documentary that the Champions own, even though they refused to be interviewed for it.

Why the Champions broke up and how they were able to reconstitute themselves should have been the heart of the hero chapters.  They should have informed character dynamics and at the end you should feel like the team worked through their garbage and found a way to reunite, stronger in the broken places.  Instead, we get a 12 page exposition dump disguised as Lily and Fatale watching a conveniently placed DVD and chapter upon chapter of unnecessary subplots for the heroes and repetitions for the villains.

C) The climax, or rather anticlimax. All the heroes, who have presumably known each other for over a decade (save for the new cyborg woman Fatale, the one character I really cared about) should know each other’s origin stories.****  We didn’t need the origin story dump at the end.   And Fatale***** hanging a lampshade on the fact that she’s about to hear yet another origin story does not make the device any less cumbersome.  Further, there was a twist that could have been awesome if it was handled less clumsily.  As it was, this twist only served to drain all the coherence from one of the main characters.

Maybe this book was meant to be a parody of superhero movies and comics and conventions. The parts describing Dr. Impossible’s previous doomsday/take over the world devices (Fungus army?) were funny the first time around. The soap opera dynamics of the old Champions team  as seen through the eyes of the new recruit was fun and could have been even more fun if we spent more time seeing how their present was informed by the past and less time recounting origins and back story that was only tangentially related to the plot. It’s obvious that the author loves the genre. But I think the book is too much a fanboy compendium and not enough of a story.

* Lily was easily the most intriguing character.  I wanted to know why she chose to make a Heel Face Turn and there was a nice bit of tension about whether Lily would just change her mind and become a villain.  However, Grossman decided that a better resolution to this character would be to offer an M. Knight Shyamalan twist regarding who she is.

** Examples of such unnecessary plot threads is Damsel’s stepmommy issues with Regina (complete with her origin story), Elphin’s vague mission for Titania (complete with her origin story), and Super Squadron’s tension with the Champions connected with the Face Heel turn of Paragon (thankfully no origin story).  I would argue that save for the mention about Super Squadron’s Stormcloud being Damsel’s father, we didn’t really need to know anything about the previous team.  It felt like Grossman was trying to wedge in a Sally/Laurie Jupiter plot thread less to comment on the nature of inherited superherodom and more to pay homage to Watchmen.

*** Introducing us to the dynamics of an established group by doing it through the eyes of a new person is a well-worn trope, used by works as high brow as Mad Men.  It is fairly effective here and had Grossman used Fatale’s nativity to slowly reveal the dynamics of this team over the ten “hero” chapters, it would have been even more effective.

**** Especially Damsel and Blackwolf (this universe’s Wonder Woman and Batman), who were MARRIED for a while.

***** Grossman set up what seemed like was going to be a big mystery about the people who turned Fatale into a cyborg to save her life.  It seemed like it could have been a sequel hook for the next book in the series–find out who these people were and make them the next book’s villain.  But it seemed like Grossman decided at the last second that he didn’t want to tell this universe’s version of X-Men 2 and tied that the plot thread up in an unsatisfactory way.

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Why I Read

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

While this blog focuses primarily on genre fiction, my general reading tastes are much more eclectic. I have been known to indulge in the truths universally acknowledged in the works of Jane Austen. I have days where I love nothing more than to escape into the poetry of Lisel Mueller, Robert Frost or Richard Wilbur (among others). And I have long said that if I could ever learn to write even half as well as Ian McEwan (post The Child in Time), I would give up whatever day job I had and write novels for the rest of my life.

(Of course this isn’t to say that genre fiction can’t be great literary masterpieces.  The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell isn’t just a well written genre book–it deserves to be a classic. Not a genre classic, a CLASSIC with no hedging modifiers).

No modifiers whatsoever.

I also am not one of those who rends her garments and bemoans the children when I hear people don’t read novels as much anymore.  The unspoken assumption in those pieces is that “Reading is the brussel sprouts of culture–you do it because it’s good for you, even if you just end up spitting out a regurgitated gooey mess for a B+ level paper in a liberal arts literature class for it.”  I guarantee you that the vast majority people won’t do something merely because it’s “good for them.”  Furthermore, turning reading into brussel sprouts, designed to cure intellectual spasms, is the fastest way to kill the enjoyment of any book.*

Any sort of medium is capable of producing great art (it is TV that gives us Mad Men, it was film that gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and any sort of medium is capable of producing throwaway entertainment (many mass market paperbacks).  To single out reading as something special and magical that only the truly intelligent can appreciate both oversells its importance and undersells its potential.

In other words, I read because I like it.  When I pick up a book, I have decided there’s something about it that’s worth my time.  I can either enjoy the book on its own terms or perhaps ironically, the way people enjoy throwing spoons at theatre showings of The Room.  Sometimes I’m in the mood for a literary masterpiece, a book that will change the way I look at the life, the universe and everything.**  Other times I’m looking for a fast read that may not give new perspectives on life, but give me a few hours of enjoyment.*** And other times, I’ll have what TVTropes calls bile fascination–I’ll want to read a book simply because I can’t believe such a thing can exist and I want to see how off the wall it can go.****

In a future post I’ll go into more detail about what sorts of characters, themes, and plots make me stick with a book vs. ones that make me throw the book at the wall in disgust.  With all the books out there, one has to know her own tastes to get a better sense of what books are worth her time.  Sometimes you just know, while other times, experimenting is the way to go.  Just like with any other artistic medium.

* Of the books that I consider my favorites of all time, only one of them I initially encountered in a classroom setting: The Master and Margarita.  And even that one was in a college class where we spent two class days on it max.  Enough to make me want to re-read on my own time, but not so much that I was worn out by the epic quest to find symbolism.

** Examples of such books are Atonement (Ian McEwan), Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis), and the aforementioned Sparrow.

*** Charlaine Harris is particularly good at crafting books like this.

**** Real Vampires Have Curves anyone?