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

From the publisher:The Violent Century

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?

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Superman-fleischerOur 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.

Maxwell Smart

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.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

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?

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.