We remember reading initial reviews of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, The Fortress of Solitude. Many critics were clearly baffled by the author’s decision to include a superhero in his giant, messy semi-autobiographical novel.
But those early critics were quickly silenced by the consensus. Released in 2003, Lethem’s masterpiece of race and culture is now considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written about New York City. With The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem deftly proved that comic books and superhero tropes have literary merit.
In many ways, author Lavie Tidhar has done the same thing with his novel, The Violent Century. He’s written a knotty spy thriller about mid-century global events and he fearlessly added superheroes to the mix. Imagine that.
But Tidhar’s book isn’t a secret history. Nor is it an alternative history. It’s mostly a parallel history. The real world is full of marching armies, rockets, atomic bombs, and death camps. These things align perfectly with comics and “cheap novels.” Consequently, when superheroes show up on the beach at Normandy in 1944 it totally makes sense.
In this pre- and post-WWII era, the Nazi Übermenschen Korps battle the League of Defenders (from the U.S.), and the Union of Socialist Heroes (from Russia). The British have their own group of beyond-men too: the BSA (the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs). The novel focuses on two of these British superheroes: Oblivion and Fog.
Even though both men had special gifts (Oblivion could “make things not exist,” and Fog could manipulate fog and smoke), their duty to King and Country was to simply observe and gather intel. But as we all know, to observe something is to change it. And that’s what happened. Oblivion and Fog ventured into the war zone and accidentally uncovered the biggest secret imaginable.
Supermen, over-men, beyond-men, übermenschen – they were all created by the Vomacht wave, a device that unleashed a quantum blast allowing humans to harness the basic power of the universe. But what nobody knew was that the Vomacht wave was not a single, observable occurrence. Rather, it was a sustained confluence. It did not happen and then pass. Oblivion and Fog discovered that it was still happening. The world, they realized, was forever changed.
In the end (spoiler alert!), the Axis Alliance was defeated. But before he shot himself, Hitler changed the world forever. He rose to power and rewrote world history like a lurid paperback. The quantum bomb created a new era of super men who acted within a moral vacuum of nihilism to create a new set of values. “We won the war,” said the head of the BSA, “but we lost ourselves.”
[The Violent Century / By Lavie Tidhar / First U.S. Printing: February 2015 / ISBN: 9781250064493]