Sunday, September 09, 2007

"You keep trying to take over the world."

The above sentence pops up in Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible” more often than the book’s title phrase does. Odd for a book that spends half its time tailing the bad guy, but revealing.
Part of the book details the exploits of Dr. Impossible, malevolent scientist extraordinaire, as he escapes from a special prison for supervillains and resumes his quest for world domination. The other plot revolves around cyborg superhero Fatale as she tries to find a place among a top-ranking team of crimefighters and prove her worth.
On its simplest level, Grossman’s novel is quietly funny as we get a rather sympathetic look at the life of an evil villain. Following Impossible through his various tasks to get bits and pieces or arcania for his evil devices reminded me at times of the megalomaniac lab-mouse Brain, from Warner Brothers’ “Pinky and the Brain” (one of the best cartoons, ever), who, every night, went to great lengths to get what he needed to “Try to take over the world!!!” And while reading the litany of Impossible’s run-down of failed inventions and alliances were supposed to help him achieve world domination, it occurred to me that the best music for a soundtrack for this segment would be Sean Cullen’s viciously funny “Food of Choice” (where the comedian solicits favourite foods from the audience and describes in a supervillain persona how he will arrange to have the food of their choice end their lives). In fact, food is about the only thing Impossible didn’t use as a weapon.
As Dr. Impossible talks candidly about the hardships of being an enemy of society and reminisces about his past glories, his mantra of “You keep trying to take over the world” comes up several times, but not in the usual places where an arch villain would drop such a line.
For most comic, sci-fi, or James Bond ultra bad guys, it would be a totally different statement, something along the lines of “Now I’m going to take over the world!” (insert maniacal cackling), delivered at the threshold of victory or during the torment of a hero. For Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Ming the Merciless, Max Zorin, Dr. Evil, or Chairface Chippendale, this would be a triumphant fact (at least in their own minds) carved in thousand metre-high letters upon the walls of destiny.
But for Impossible, the resolute statement of his code doesn’t come up in the heat of battle. Rather, it’s associated more often with the good – er, bad Doctor’s repeated defeats, shamings and general setbacks. It’s a bolstering of self-confidence for a man who knows, and occasionally openly admits, he’s doomed to always lose. As he comes up with one wacky scheme after another and tilts Quixotically towards another near-win, it’s a reaffirmation of who he is at heart – someone who keeps trying, despite the odds and despite what experience has empirically shown. This is a heart-felt sentence that is confided as part of a journal or on-going documentary interview (either internal or actual), and thus personal and quiet, not something flung at an enemy as some sort of taunt or war cry.
Grossman borrows a trick from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” playbook by making the story’s villain one of his protagonists. The fact that Grossman takes it even further and makes Impossible a somewhat sympathetic character (he’s clearly a nut, a megalomaniac and a potential killer, but it’s hard not to pity the nerdy little guy who respects his elders, appreciates fine workmanship, studies hard and who used to get picked on by the cool kids) might also indicate some influence from William Thackeray’s portrayal of Becky Sharp in “Vanity Fair”.
But what makes the novel most interesting is how the story of Fatale parallels Impossible’s. She’s the new superhero on the block, trying to navigate the perilous waters of the relationships among The Champions, the elite team that fights the forces of evil. She has to put up with her colleagues suffering marital problems, mild learning disabilities and alcoholism, among other issues, as well as in-fighting that would put high school hallway antics to shame. All of this on top of the fact that being a cyborg makes Fatale incapable of having anything resembling a normal life (including intimacy). In a world where having super powers should make you the coolest of the cool, the pairing of Impossible and Fatale makes “Soon I Will Be Invincible” a story of outsiders.
Interesting too is that there is no “Revenge of the Nerds” in this story – Impossible doesn’t win (not much of a spoiler to reveal that – he’s a villain in a stereotypical superhero’s world) and let’s face it, doesn’t even really fit in with the other supervillains (the bar scene reminded me of some of the episodes of “The Tick” – another of the best cartoons ever), and Fatale doesn’t win a hunky dude’s heart and rise to fame and glory. There is no triumph for these two aside from survival and introspection: Impossible’s still alive and determined to keep trying; Fatale has proven her mettle (pun intended) in a tough situation and begins to come to terms with her own inner demons. In a totally unrealistic universe, it’s a realistic ending – as in our world, the little guys generally only get small victories, while the aces on top usually stay on top.
Because of this, it would be tempting to invoke the old cliché and say that Impossible and Fatale are opposite sides of the same coin. Certainly both are damaged individuals. Both are on the outside. But there’s a significant difference between the two that shows Fatale has actually come out on top: Impossible comes full circle – ending up incarcerated and plotting his next escape and means to achieving supremacy – exactly where he was in the opening pages of the novel; Fatale, on the other hand, has learned an important lesson from another alienated soul – Lily, who has been both a hero and a villain. Lily refuses to allow herself to be boxed into a specific definition or role and has little use for the squabblings of the in-crowd. In fact, by walking away from it all, she shows Fatale that the cyborg can take ultimate power by being the one to define herself and by following her own heart. There is some sense that Fatale realizes this, and thus has moved beyond Impossible, who is imprisoned not by chains or walls, but by his accepted role within the system. Impossible becomes more than a name for this villain, it represents his chances of escape from his circumstances.
As novels set in superhero universes go, “Soon I Will Be Invincible” makes the perfect sidekick for Minister Faust’s “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain”. Grossman’s individual-focused story, with its exploration of alienation and personalities coping with their past and present circumstances, compliments Faust’s tale that tackles broader issues like the self-help industry and celebrity psychiatrists, the price of ego, and the cover-up of the truth and propagation of lies to advance personal, political and corporate agendas.
The irony about “Soon I Will Be Invincible” is that like a superhero, it tries to hide its secret identity. Given the setting, this is most definitely a science fiction story, but you won’t find it on the SF shelves in your local bookstore (at least not in this neck of the woods), no, it’s under cover in the regular/non-genre fiction section, like Clark Kent with his suit and glasses on, blending with the mundane citizens of Metropolis. That is, until there’s a crisis, until someone buys the book and opens it and realizes (whether they want to admit it or not), it’s not human, it’s superpowered alien – it’s really sci-fi! I wonder if the publishers (who no doubt insist it be placed with the “normal” fiction) get it?
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