Superpowers

Superpowers UK coverIt’s all about what you know, and what you don’t. For instance, I don’t know how much David J Schwartz’ first novel has in common with the rest of the recent mini-glut of prose superhero stories; I haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, or Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, or Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, or any others. But I have read a fair bit of Schwartz’ short fiction, so I know that Superpowers displays most of the virtues of stories like “The Water-Poet and the Four Seasons” or “Five Hundred and Forty Doors”, including an admirable sure-footedness when it comes to handling the fantastic, a gift for efficiently capturing the essentials of a situation or character, and an emotional directness that, if it catches you unawares, can knock you down. (I should also say that I know Schwartz himself a little — enough to ask him to write reviews for Strange Horizons, and to play the occasional game of Scrabulous with, at least.) And I know that, while not everything in Superpowers works, enough of it does to indicate that David J Schwartz is a name worth knowing.

If you read the first couple of pages of his novel, what you’ll know is this:

Fact #1: The party took place on Saturday, May 19, 2001, at 523 West Mifflin Street, Apt. 2, Madison, Wisconsin, 53703.

Fact #2: Five people attended the party, all of them inhabitants of 523. Charles Frost, age twenty, and Jack Robinson, age nineteen, hosted their downstairs neighbors Caroline Bloom, twenty, Harriet Bishop, twenty, and Mary Beth Layton, twenty.

Fact #3: Of the five, only Charles Frost was available to be interviewed in the aftermath of these events, and except for the events witnessed by your intrepid reporter, the following is based on his account alone.

The guy telling you this is Marcus Hatch, conspiracy nut and self-styled “editor” of Superpowers, though there’s every indication he wrote the whole thing. This is not a book that wastes time getting going, so before long, you know what happened after the party — c’mon, deep down you knew it already — which is that everyone woke up with a superpower. Mary Beth got super-strength, Harriet got invisibility, Caroline got flight, Jack got super-speed, and Charlie Frost got telepathy. We get to know the characters as they explore and/or come to terms with their new abilities.

Schwarz’ style is extremely approachable, and emphasizes character through action or reaction far more often than it does through introspection. This means that Superpowers stands or falls with its character dynamics; and in the manner of its standing, I’d say that Joss Whedon’s influence is evident, for Whedon’s strategy is also to present us with types who are later complicated by the things that happen to them. Moreover, though Schwartz’ dialogue doesn’t recall Whedon’s stylistically, the way that characters display their emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), and the way a ready vein of character-based humour is mixed with moments of sudden, sharp pathos, is a familiar tactic. The scene in which our five nascent heroes get together for the first time to discuss what they’re going to do is a case in point; the serious personal and moral questions that get raised are counterpointed by the fact that Mary Beth has gone to the trouble to put together a handout titled “Options for Superpowered Individuals”, and punctuates the conversation by writing down what people say on a flip-chart. Some members of the group aren’t initially interested in crime-fighting (notably Caroline: “My first thought upon finding out you all had developed strange abilities was not, ‘Oh goody, now we can all fight crime together,'” she says, with just a little echo of Cordelia Chase). But it’s Charlie who gets down to brass tacks, with an argument we’ve heard before:

“I think we should help any way we can,” Charlie said. “I know I wish I had.”

“What do you mean?” Mary Beth asked.

“I mean Marsha Tanner,” Charlie said. “The guy who killed her — the first day I went outside, I got inside his head. He was thinking about killing her then, and I didn’t do anything about it. He looked normal, you know? Sometimes when I’m angry, I might think about hurting someone. But he meant it.”

“You didn’t know,” Harriet said.

“I was the only one who did know,” Charlie said. “That’s my point. We can do this, and to me that’s reason enough that we should. It’s not about whether there’s enough demand. It’s about what’s right.” (76-9)

Charlie’s determination and sincerity are all the more affecting for the fact that his Peter Parker moment has been going on largely in the margins of other people’s scenes, and it’s only here that (for me at least) the parallel clicks into place. A lot of Superpowers is similarly referential; above and beyond the journalistic frame, it’s a very knowing book, a book that’s eager for you to play along. Some of the references grate a little — such as when Caroline refers to the Madison All-Stars as “your friendly neighborhood superheroes”, because the contrast between the place these heroes look after, which really does feel like a smallish community, and the franchise-emptiness that goes with Spider-Man saying it in a big city was already implicit — but a lot of them are nicely underplayed, because Schwartz knows that any modern superhero story is going to be expected to jump through certain hoops. The question of costumes, for instance, or — more important to the novel — the question of how normal people cope with superpowers.

But Schwartz brings a number of things to the table that stop his book being too second-hand. First and foremost is an apparent determination that his normal people will in fact be normal, and will live in the world we know. His superheroes joke and bitch and celebrate and recriminate and get horny just like normal college students. They are not captured or experimented on by the government, nor do they really live in fear of their true identities being discovered. (That kind of knowledge turns out to be a power that doesn’t matter as much as you think.) They focus, as I’ve already mentioned, on local, day-to-day crimes such as convenience store hold-ups. Which is the second and more important thing: there’s no supervillain. This sounds trivial, but in fact isn’t; it highlights just how much most super-teams are defined by who they strive against, and the uncertainty this absence creates is underlined in a couple of ways. The more conventional one is that the All-Stars uncover evidence of a World War II superteam, and feel perhaps slightly jealous that their predecessors had such a clear enemy to fight; the less conventional one is the looming presence of September 11th over the story.

What we know — and what none of the characters know, although one of Marcus’ early editorial notes confirms that it’ll be an issue — is that for a novel set between May and October 2001, the spectre of 9/11 is inescapable. The impersonal undertow of geopolitics is the only supervillain Superpowers will give us, and though it may not be a surprise, it’s still a little terrifying how quickly the event is seized on by various parties as a way to give their narratives sense and coherence. This is of course exactly what, on a larger scale, Schwartz is doing with his novel, but he’s doing it, I think, to point out how dangerous it is; “This was the worst of the American character,” someone thinks to themselves towards the end of the book, as anti-Muslim violence comes to Madison, “People nestled so deeply in their own comfort zone that they could not even distinguish between unknowns” (343). Indeed, in the last hundred pages the light-heartedness of the early chapters vanishes almost entirely, and serious costs start to be asked of all the characters.

It’s a choice that makes Superpowers the only story I’ve come across that extends in quite this way the familiar superhero narrative of powers not being enough to deal with personal crises, such that the novel ultimately becomes a story about powers not being enough to deal with the impersonal forces that shape the world we live in today. (There’s J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man #36, I suppose, but I think most people would agree that’s best forgotten.) It’s a little miraculous that Schwartz manages to pull this off as well as he does; the end of Superpowers is by no means perfect, but it successfully writes about 9/11 without asking for too big a loan from the reserve of shared sentiment the mention of that day still carries. We’re left to recognize most of the ways in which the event refracts the first part of the novel for ourselves, such as the parallel between the description of the TV coverage as “crayon-bold” and the primary-colour exuberance of the All-Stars’ costumes. And there are a handful of serious emotional wallops in the last 50 pages, stuff that grows organically out of the All-Stars’ characters and the changing situation they find themselves in – when they know as little as anyone else, they’re as powerless as anyone else – that make you realise exactly how precisely controlled the tone is throughout. Similarly, the novel repeatedly overcame one of my big reservations about prose superhero stories – the feeling that superpowers are so much better suited to a visual medium – by emphasizing the subjective experience of his heroes. This is particularly affecting in the case of Jack, who may be able to stretch his subjective time further and further, but can’t turn back the progression of his father’s chronic illness, and in the case of Charlie, whose power escalates such that he becomes not unlike a human Cerebro, able to surf the mindstream of the world (which explains how Hatch is able to present most of his manuscript as a third-person narrative based only on Charlie’s testimony) when he’s not being overwhelmed by it.

Marcus warns us early on that a lot of questions — how the All Stars got their powers, for instance — don’t get answered and, in the end, despite Charlie’s near-omniscience, Superpowers is all about what the All Stars don’t know and can’t do, as much as it is what they do and can. Which means that when the answers the All Stars think they’ve found about themselves are overturned by events, it hurts; and means that what Superpowers says to its readers is, playing along should never be mistaken for the real world. You know?

Girl Reporter

The Fountain Award carries a prize of $1000, given annually to a speculative short story of exceptional literary quality. The award is judged by a select jury, and chosen from work nominated by magazine and anthology editors.

Juried short fiction awards are a good thing, and awards with actual prize money are a good thing, so the Fountain Award is more or less a good thing; and I only say ‘more or less’ because of the reflexive cringe that I get from the phrase ‘speculative literature’. I agree with, for example, Sherwood Smith, in that I think ‘literary’ is so loaded that its deployment almost always does more harm than good. And in this specific case it seems redundant: surely the award could just be given to a speculative short story of exceptional quality?

The previous two winners, “The Specialist” by Alison Smith and “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” by Jeffrey Ford, are both worthy— neither was my favourite story of its year, but both are strong choices, and defensible choices as award-winners. This year I find myself somewhat baffled. “Girl Reporter” by Stephanie Harrell has a straightforward conceit: meet the woman behind the hero. Names are never named, but it’s clear that the titular narrator is Lois Lane, and that the proto-hero she strikes up a relationship with is, or becomes, Superman. Except that this version of Superman is a lunkhead, given to talking about himself in Duffman-like third person pronouncements, and lacking the strong moral sense of the hero we’re familiar with. He saves the girl, if she’s blonde; and it doesn’t occur to him until prodded to divert the satellite that’s hurtling down on the city. He wants a better image, but lacks the imagination to come up with one for himself, perhaps because all he wants is the image, rather than to genuinely change. So he asks the girl reporter to help, and because she’s fallen for him, against her better judgement she obliges. Soon enough she realises that creating a hero might be as troublesome as creating a monster. Some way further down the line, our hero writes his autobiography, Flights of Justice, which it’s implied is the version of the Superman story we all know, and among other things it misrepresents the girl reporter. Now she wants to set the record straight.

The story doesnt do a lot for me, but it’s taken me a while to pin down why. Technically it’s fine, or better than fine: well-paced, frequently clever, with a distinctive and complex voice. It’s an easy read, but asks questions about how we construct identities for ourselves and others that are worth asking. All it lacks, it seems, is that ineffable something: soul.

Partly this is personal preference. I’m wary of re-imaginings of existing stories at the best of times (please, no more Lovecraft crossover fanfic), and the more so when they seem designed, in part, to make a political point, however necessary that point may be. But even taking “Girl Reporter” on its own terms, it doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly interesting or challenging re-imagining. An examination of the ‘helplessness’ of the comic-book heroine is a big, easy target, as is Superman. Which is not to say they shouldn’t be targeted—I’ve no particular attachment to the character—but that fact is we all already know he’s a bit of a lunkhead, and the psychology of the type has been dissected and parodied pretty extensively (and not least by comics themselves, from Watchmen to The Authority). “Girl Reporter” does what it does with wit, but what it does is not particularly new—certainly not in the way that, say, “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” made the fairy story new.

But more than that, I find myself frustrated by the ending, when we suddenly come to this:

As for me, you’ll want to know my diagnosis. Superhero-envy, textbook case. Every gal knows, never fall for someone who can leave the earth, who can fly, who is not bound to the laws of physics you’re bound to. All of my investigative abilities have led to this little revelation. I didn’t just fall for him, I wanted to be him, and under those moon blue nights he was the one who could fly, streak away, leaving me on the cracked cement sidewalk with my trench coat and scoop.

I’m not sure whether this is intended as a twist, exactly, but assuming we take it seriously (which I think we are meant to do; there’s plenty of self-diagnosis elsewhere in the story, but this seems like something more), however I read it, it leaves me cold. I can come up with two possible interpretations of this paragraph, neither of which I much care for.

The first is that the girl reporter has a genuine psychological disorder, and that the story we’ve just read therefore cannot be trusted. This seems to me to weaken the story quite significantly: I didn’t particularly like the narrator to start with—it seems to me she’d be right at home at a party for media luvvies; give me Smallville‘s take on Lois, one of the few things the later seasons of that show have got right, any day—but if you’re going to write her story, surely you should follow it through to its logical end. Undermining her removes the sting of the story’s critique.

The second interpretation, which occurred to me after a second reading, is that the girl reporter doesn’t have a disorder, but has been diagnosed with one as a result of her actions, either deliberately or conveniently, to discredit her in the eyes of her potential readers, but not in the eyes of us, Stephanie Harrell’s readers. This would be a neat trick, if it worked; unfortunately it doesn’t quite. It’s too extreme to sustain my suspension of disbelief.

Because, in the end, “Girl Reporter” is a conservative story. It is too neat, too comfortable; nowhere does it contain the sort of fantastic dazzle that characterised Ford’s story last year, or that can be found in a number of the stories listed by the SLF as honorable mentions—particularly Darryl Gregory’s “Second Person, Present Tense”, M. Rickert’s “Anyway”, and Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror”. It’s enough to make you look again at that ‘literary’ caveat, and wonder whether it’s not just an empty adjective; whether, if it comes down to it, the Fountain Award will go to style over structure, technique over imagination. Probably, especially after looking at the list of judges, this is just my bafflement speaking, because in reality the winner should combine all those qualities, inseperably; but there is still a similar coolly respectable polish to all the winners so far, I think, and that’s something of a shame. I can’t help hoping next year’s winner has explosions (or is even an all-out epic).