Superheroes and secret agents: Lavie Tidhar’s “The Violent Century”

From the pub­lish­er:

They’d nev­er meant to be heroes.

For sev­en­ty years they guard­ed the British Empire. Obliv­ion and Fogg, insep­a­ra­ble friends, bound togeth­er by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the after­math of the Sec­ond World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account… and the past has a habit of catch­ing up to the present.

Now, recalled to the Retire­ment Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Obliv­ion must face up to a past of ter­ri­ble war and unac­knowl­edged hero­ism, — a life of dusty cor­ri­dors and secret rooms, of furtive meet­ings and blood-stained fields — to answer one last, impos­si­ble ques­tion: What makes a hero?


Our Amer­i­can heroes are the wish-ful­fil­ment of immi­grants, daz­zled by the brash­ness and the 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. The Vomacht wave did not make them, it released them. Our shared hal­lu­ci­na­tion, our faith. Our faith in heroes. This is why you see our Amer­i­can heroes but nev­er their British coun­ter­part. Our is the rise of Empire, theirs is the decline. Our seek the lime­light, while theirs skulk in shad­ows. — Joseph Shus­ter, in The Vio­lent Cen­tu­ry

In ret­ro­spect, it’s an idea so obvi­ous it’s remark­able it hasn’t been mined to death: super­heroes as spies. Oh, sure, there’s like­ly a few attempts at com­bin­ing espi­onage and extra­or­di­nary pow­ers out there—truth time: I did no research for this, and my knowl­edge of com­ic books real­ly died when the orig­i­nal Mar­vel run of Star Wars comics ended—but I’d bet a sum of mon­ey [read: small amount] that the con­cept has nev­er been as per­fect­ly exe­cut­ed as in Lavie Tidhar’s thor­ough­ly grip­ping super­spy thriller The Vio­lent Cen­tu­ry.

Avoid­ing the stan­dard tropes of the super-abled, Tidhar—author of the bril­liant Osama and the effort­less­ly fun Book­man His­to­ries steam­punk trilogy—focuses on a qui­eter, some­how more British effort at exploit­ing the dif­fer­ent­ly gift­ed. After a strange event in 1932 known as “The Change” alters the genet­ic struc­ture of a tiny minor­i­ty of humans across the globe, the Bureau for Super­an­nu­at­ed Affairs, led by a fig­ure only known as “The Old Man”, begins round­ing up the new­ly super-empow­ered for train­ing in the art of espi­onage.

The ulti­mate secret agent. After James Bond. And Archer. And George Smi­ley. And…

Tidhar’s super­heroes would, in oth­er cir­cum­stances, fit in quite well in the qui­et cor­ri­dors and hushed con­ver­sa­tions of a John le Car­ré nov­el and not the leather-suit­ed X-Men. As the Old Man tells his recruits, “Do not be tempt­ed by the Amer­i­cans, the loud­ness, the colour. We are the grey men, we are the shad­ow men, we watch but are not seen.” Tid­har takes on a mut­ed style of stac­ca­to prose and off-kil­ter dia­logue, adding heft and atmos­phere to a super­hero nov­el that owes as much Gra­ham Greene as to Stan Lee.

In this world, the atten­tion-grab­bing Amer­i­can heroes—or, in the par­lance of the nov­el, the “Über­men­schen” or Over-Men—go by such Bang! Zoom! Ka-Pow! titles as Tiger­man, The Elec­tric Twins, Whirl­wind, Girl Surfer, and the Green Gun­man. Even the Ger­mans and Rus­sians are a bit showy in their Snow Storm and Red Sick­le. In Britain, the spe­cial agents (trained by Alan Tur­ing!) are known by some­what milder sobri­quets; Tank, Mr. Blur, Spit, and Mrs. Tin­kle. Through this con­trast, Tid­har skill­ful­ly de- and re-con­structs our expect­ed notions of what a hero tru­ly is.

Cum­ber­batch and Free­man as Obliv­ion and Fogg? THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN NOW.

The pro­tag­o­nists of The Vio­lent Cen­tu­ry are the qui­et­ly dynam­ic duo of Fogg and Obliv­ion (whom I auto­mat­i­cal­ly cast in my nev­er-ceas­ing brain movie as the delec­tably British pair­ing of Mar­tin Free­man and Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch). Obliv­ion, some­what ter­ri­fy­ing­ly, can com­plete­ly remove things from exis­tence mere­ly through con­cen­tra­tion. Fogg (the beat­ing heart and soul of Cen­tu­ry) has mas­tered the abil­i­ty to control…well, his name says a lot about him:

Fog and smoke are no longer nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na but some­thing almost alive…One tone, ris­ing, thrums through Fogg’s body through his very soul: it is the sound of sub­atom­ic par­ti­cles respond­ing in a col­laps­ing wave of prob­a­bil­i­ties, of mol­e­cules form­ing and re-form­ing around him, of a great and com­fort­ing gath­er­ing fog.”

Obliv­ion and Fogg have been sur­rep­ti­tious­ly han­dling the inter­ests of the British Empire for decades. It’s an odd yet effec­tive par­ing: Fogg’s innate sense of moral­i­ty clash­es with his orders, where­as the inscrutable Obliv­ion plays his cards far clos­er to the chest. Flip­ping back and forth through his­to­ry, Tid­har weaves the pair through almost a cen­tu­ry of con­stant war, as those affect­ed in The Change age far slow­er than usu­al.

Leather jump­suits: to blame for the rise in super­hero body odour prob­lems?

The agents wit­ness the ero­sion of both the world and their souls as they trav­el from the ash­es of WWI through and beyond the events of 9/11 (to which Tid­har offers up a cru­el­ly effec­tive allu­sion to genre ances­tors meet­ing up with real-world his­to­ry: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s—It’s a plane.”). If you thought the spies of le Car­ré were a jad­ed bunch, they have noth­ing on agents who have lived through sev­en­ty years of secrets and lies and war­fare with no true end in sight.

Where The Vio­lent Cen­tu­ry tru­ly stands out from its fore­bears is in the con­cept of con­se­quences. Fogg and Obliv­ion, and by exten­sion us, wit­ness the gen­uine ram­i­fi­ca­tions of actions both super and non. They are scarred by them, mould­ed by them, in a way few com­ic books and movies have ever attempt­ed (the obvi­ous excep­tions being Watch­men [both Alan Moore’s genre-bust­ing com­ic and the vast­ly under-appre­ci­at­ed movie] and The Dark Knight).

Like Watch­men, Tid­har exam­ines our shared his­to­ry with­in a genre frame­work, ana­lyz­ing how human­i­ty allows (and con­tin­ue to allow) hor­ren­dous events to occur even while we stake a claim to some neb­u­lous moral high ground. Like Watch­men, The Vio­lent Cen­tu­ry is more than a com­ic book, more than a super­hero nov­el, more than a thriller, more than a fan­ta­sy. The Vio­lent Cen­tu­ry deserves the lev­el of respect of the works of le Car­ré and Greene, once again prov­ing Lavie Tid­har to be one of the most excit­ing, inno­v­a­tive, and plain fun authors work­ing today.