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Book Review: The Violent Century

By (March 7, 2015) No Comment

The Violent CenturyTidhar-ViolentCenturyUS-Blog

by Lavie Tidhar

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s, 2015

It’s often been observed that the warped logic behind book-cover blurbs is as inscrutable as it is effective. There’s an art to it – an odd and perhaps unworthy art, but an art all the same, and the blurb on the US cover of Lavie Tidhar’s crackerjack new book The Violent Century is a perfect example of the breed. It’s from the enormously smart and enjoyable website io9 (their motto: “We Come From the Future”), and it’s deadbolt simple: “Like Watchmen on crack.”

That will require some unpacking for readers on the Upper West Side. The Watchmen is of course the groundbreaking 1987 graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, which follows the sordid adventures of a group of superheroes in a world far more closely resembling non-comic book reality than is usually found in the backdrop to superhero strips. One of the most interesting inquiries of The Watchmen is exactly that: what would the real world be like if it had comic book characters running around in it?

And since the “on crack” part of the blurb is just a current slang expression for “taken to wild extremes,” that priceless io9 blurb immediately telegraphs a view of Tidhar’s book: it’ll be a superhero adventure story set in something closely resembling the real world, and it’ll be even more lurid and strange than The Watchmen was.

This is only partly accurate. Even now, a quarter-century after its first appearance, it would be tough to find a work of science fiction (let alone a comic book) more lurid and strange than The Watchmen, which, thanks to Moore’s shall-we-say-eccentric writing, still retains its shrewd and relentless power to unsettle. And in its defense, Tidhar’s The Violent Century doesn’t try to out-Moore Moore, although it’s brimming with clever innovations of its own.

It is about super-beings existing in the real world, however, and unlike most entrants into that problematic sub-genre, it succeeds completely in being both believable and thrilling, mainly because it puts the human dimension of its extraordinary events front and center. The story centers around the decades-long friendship between two super-operatives of London’s Retirement Bureau, two super-powered men named Fogg and Oblivion (as you might have guessed, the one can create and manipulate a super-dense fog and the other can disintegrate things) who are sent on perilous covert missions during the Second World War by the Bureau’s enigmatic head, the Old Man – whose office contains just about as many sly in-jokes as Tidhar can cram into one paragraph:

A photo on the wall. A rare photo. The Old Man and a young Winston Churchill, shaking hands. Both smiling. Churchill with one of his trademark cigars. Long overcoats. Winter. Books on the shelf. Fogg knows them well. Le Dictionnaire Biographique des Surhommes, by Stanley Leiber. A default reference text. French edition. Banned for years in Britain. Even included some Bureau personnel within its pages. Stands right next to The Super Man: His Myth, his Iconography, by Siegel and Shuster.

Comic book fans will be smiling fondly at such stuff, but Tidhar has bigger ambitions than simply planting cute in-jokes for fanboys. In a story of remarkable sweep and speed that’s always anchored by the complicated dynamic between Fogg and Oblivion, Tidhar combines an affecting if familiar tale of two experienced operatives brought in for one last assignment with a fascinating effort at world-building, including conscripting no less than Alan Turing (“a young, lonely man, used to carrying out conversations in his own head”) to hint that the source of our heroes’ abilities, and the abilities of their German counterparts, the Ubermenschen, might be quantum-based:

The brain can be viewed as a biological quantum computer, Turing says. As such it interacts with the world on a subatomic level as well as the observable world. That means your brain tells your hands and feet what to do – the body you feel yourself inhabiting – but it also works on a smaller scale, as well – a scale will beyond our ability to observe. Formerly beyond our ability to control.

And although the adventure aspects of the book are handled with cinematic economy, it’s the emotional richness Tidhar lends to even his minor characters that sets The Violent Century apart from the general run of its genre and made it so popular after its UK release in 2013. Fogg in particular dominates the novel with his somber, somewhat tortured personality, always slightly regretting his extraordinary gifts, always wondering about roads not taken:

Fogg tries to imagine a world in which he is not standing by the railway tracks, the expanding wave rushing towards him, the frozen faces behind the windows of the approaching train, that crystalline shimmer in the air, the gathering fog, the onrush of probabilities hitting him, altering him on a micro-scale, a change he’s not even aware of until it is a done thing, and the faces unfreeze behind the windows, and the train rushes on, and the fog gathers around him like a living thing … no, he can’t imagine it, this alternate present is a blank in his mind. What would he have become? Follow his father into the market stall, off-loading vegetables, shouting, A pound for a pound! Fresh apples, darling, still with the dew of morning on them! Saying, There you go, mate, closed-cap mushrooms in a brown paper bag, the scales, the old cash register, drinks in the pub, slap the missus around on a Friday night, church on Sunday, God looking down on a world unchanged.

That world Fogg imagines drifts more and more out of reach as the over-arching plot of Tidhar’s book lurches into motion and begins accelerating away from happy wallowing in its sure-fire premise. It’s cause for celebration that this smart novel is now in print in a US edition, and if its slightly misleading cover-blurb lures people in who might otherwise have missed it, well, they’ll be happy it did.