Thursday, July 17, 2008

SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE: Detective Novel in Tights

(Reflection on SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE, first novel by Austin Grossman, a games programmer and PhD candidate in English lit, with more thought about Sue Grafton's mystery series.)

A day after writing that Sue Grafton's detective - narrator Kinsey Millhone is sort of like her VW bug, homely, an underdog, but scrappy and dependable - I encountered a narrator like her who really is a machine. She's Fatale, a half-Robot Amazon built from the remains of a plump 5'5" woman who lost her memory and 1/2 of her body in an accident vacationing in Brazil (near the Amazon? coincidence?). She chose her name from a list, she tells us, and sometimes regrets not choosing "Cybergirl," which would have been easier for check-in clerks to pronounce and spell.

The novel sounds like it might be a recipe for a quick comedy sketch: To write a straight-faced crime fiction, obeying all the rules of the form, as if our planet really did contain "one thousand, six hundred, and eighty-six enhanced, gifted, or otherwise-superpowered persons." In fact, the notion of fitting super-herodom snuggly in the real world lies behind some recent movies and some old TV shows, too: THE INCREDIBLES, SKY-HIGH, and the old GREAT AMERICAN HERO. Of course, there's SMALLVILLE and HEROES on TV too. For that matter, it was this approach that made Marvel comics so distinctive and kind of annoying from their beginning in the late 50s. One commentator quipped, "They'd be too busy to get up from their analysts' couches to save a cat in a tree."

So there's fun to be had here, but it wouldn't last if the story didn't develop well, and it does. Like a Grafton novel, it's a story with characters who have pasts that impinge on the present, and there's a mystery at the start: Where is CoreFire, the mightiest hero of them all? Did his nemesis Doctor Impossible finally get him? Because chapters alternate between Fatale's voice and the villain's we know that he has no idea. As in a detective novel, we get a corpse about one-third of the way through, and we build up to the confrontation and answers in the last third.

Here's a sample of Fatale's narration. She's feeling out of her depth being asked to join "The Champions" super-hero group. Assured "You'll do fine. We all get our start somehow," by the group's leader, a part-alien masked girl named Damsel -- recently divorced from a Batman-style human named Blackwolf -- Fatale reflects
I guess we do at that, although some people get born with flight and a force-field, while others get ground into the Brazilian pavement. Funny thing.
Then Fatale's challenged to spar with one of their members ("Elphin," warrior elf left behind when Oberon and Titania went back to the elf dimension).
She gestures to the mat, like she's not sure I'll understand English. I don't know what she thinks I am. A knight in patchwork armor? I wonder if they've explained it to her -- the accident, the operations, the rest of it.
I shrug. "Bring it on."
"I would not hurt thee." Christ.
...It's not that I'm scared. I'm pretty good at this; I've just never fought a world-famous superheroine. I've never fought someone with her own pinup calendar and herbal tea brand. The truth is, I was halfway hoping for a shot at Damsel herself. There are tricks you can try with a force field. (p. 59, Vintage paperback).
The other narrator, "Doctor Impossible," is a mad -scientist who dropped out of Harvard after his seventh sophomore year, unable to stick with any program. He was the geeky kid, he tells us, and that stays with him, even now, when he's super-strong, impervious to bullets, and working on a doomsday machine that will alter the earth's orbit at his command. As we'd expect in any detective fiction, we have more than one scene in a dive bar, this one for super-villains.
I step through a slit in the plastic sheeting and into the light. It's going strong tonight, thirty or forty of us milling around, the usual assortment of half-brilliant, half-unlucky types sitting in twos and threes. A man made of rock. Something like a demon-woman, horns and a tail. A man clad in metal armor, holding an ax; a pale blue man, translucent....
I've forgotten what it's like out here with the smaller operators, people like the Pharaoh or the Quizzler, cutting deals for a few grains of plutonium or a high-tech crossbow. I'm not a natural mixer. And there's the difference in education. I look around more carefully. Villains fight villains, too.
"Doctor Impossible! Hey, Doc!"
A familiar red costume waves to me. He's sitting at the bar with a few guys I don't know, but I know Bloodstryke from the Thailand days. He's basically okay, for a guy whose armor drinks blood. (p.102)
Of course, it's fun to pick up on parallels to DC and Marvel comics, to detective novels, and to Austin Grossman's other areas of expertise: there are analogies to computer game "environments" and programming, and references to fiction. From Shakespeare, there's the Titania reference, and a living undersea computer named "Phathom - 5" from THE TEMPEST song ("Full fathom five your father lies..."), and a woman who disappeared with three friends to become rulers in a fairy tale kingdom, only to come back and become a character in a series of children's books now also made into movies: Narnia, anyone?

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