World Fantasy Award-winning author Lavie Tidhar has already gone to some dark, strange places — but in The Violent Century, his brilliant Cold War epic, he does the closest thing we've seen to Alan Moore's Watchmen in book form. And along the way, he questions what it means to be a hero.
Some spoilers ahead...
The Violent Century begins with the novel's two main protagonists reuniting in a London Bar in the present day; Oblivion is under orders to bring his former partner, Fogg, in to revisit one of their old missions, back during World War II. They're superheroes from a bygone era, who helped to defend the British Empire during the conflict.
They haven't aged since the day that they were imbued with powers: The Change has imparted a sort of immortality to those affected. While the world has continued forward, they're a curious relic of the past that persists into the present.
As Fogg is brought in for a chat, we're treated to a rapid-fire jump across the century as Tidhar leaps from 1936 to 1944 to the 1960s, 70s and 80s. There's a final loose end that's eluded everyone at the Retirement Bureau, and it might have something to do with the state of the world since the Change. The book's structure is a bit jarring at first (as is Tidhar's lack of quotations around dialogue), but soon, as the format sinks in, it begins to flow along nicely.
The story bounces around as Fogg and Oblivion recount their work and experiences throughout their service in the name of the United Kingdom, lurking and assisting from the shadows. They've got some pretty interesting powers that were certainly helpful, and Tidhar likes to play with the names of his characters. Henry Fogg appropriately can manipulate fog, hiding escapes and creating cloudy golems. Oblivion has a much more troubling power: he makes things vanish from this universe.
Along the way, we're introduced to a range of American superheroes. And it's here that we find the great strength of the book: Tidhar's examination not of what makes a hero, but how we perceive our heroes. The American heroes are an almost parody of the comic heroes that you know and love: Tigerman, Whirlwind, The Electric Twins, The Green Gunman, Girl Surfer and Frogman, the League of Defenders. There's their German and Russian counterparts as well: Wolkenstein (Wolf Man), and Schneesturm (Snow Storm), and the Red Sickle. They're propaganda icons, pumped up, brightly dressed and there for the show, in a pointed look at their real world counterparts.
The British heroes are more reserved, while the Germans play into the iconography of the Third Reich. This alternate Second World War is rife with superheroes and historical supporting figures, ranging from Alan Turing in England to Wernher von Braun, who both use the war effort and these supermen help to reach their own ends and goals.
Eventually, we come to understand that a Doctor Vomacht, a German scientist, is responsible for The Change, and it's the interactions between Fogg and his daughter, Klara that bring the past violently into the future. It's Klara and her unique power that holds a vital key to the entire story, and her relationship with Germany complicates her dealings with Fogg during the War. Along the way, we visit horrific concentration camps which Jewish and captured superheroes are brought, Jewish supermen who are fighting against the Germans for their very existence, and pulpish action scenes that are both violent and beautiful to behold. Frequently, Fogg and Oblivion recall their orders while in the field: "Don't be a hero." They're to observe and report back, working out of the shadows, something they ignore more than once.
The Violent Century covers a lot of ground: the pre-war years in England, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the Eichmann trials, the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th. (Chillingly – It's a bird, it's a plane, it's… a plane.) The book runs out of order, with the plot teased out of each section, growing as a larger and more complicated puzzle throughout. It's a strange reveal, one that slowly draws you in; first with action and then with some excellent character drama.
While Tidhar looks at the violent narrative of the twentieth century, he has his eyes firmly planted on how we've interpreted the violence in our own real world. The entire modern superhero genre comes out of the state of the publishing industry in the 1930s, from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman and Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America. Tidhar's own Übermensch are an interesting play on the comic book creations.
Indeed, Stanley Lieber (popularly known as Stan Lee), shows up as a historian and author of a book titled Le Dictionnaire Biographique des Surhommes (The Dictionary of Superhuman Biographies), alongside artist Jerry Siegel and author Joe Shuster, authors of The Super Man: His Myth, his Iconography. The Violent Century is filled with small Easter eggs such as these, which ultimately support Tidhar's main idea here: the superheroes we create are an extension of ourselves:
"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."
This falls pretty closely to the character of the comic book heroes that we know and love, they're more than simply their own characters; they're part of a collective psyche from those they come from. Tidhar's heroes play into this nicely in this self-aware book. There's a wonderfully fantastic scene when one character, doped up on opium, dreams of the world in with thought bubbles, confined by black borders - the very medium Tidhar is examining. On top of that, his characters are as ageless as their Golden/Silver Age counterparts, endlessly playing out the same battles over and over again.
There's been a number of fantastic novels that have drawn on the mythos of the comic book world, ranging from Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, but Tidhar's is probably one of the best prose examinations to really examine the superhero and what they mean.
Ultimately, The Violent Century is about legacy and how heroics play into it, a deeper message than defining what heroics mean: The actions of Fogg and Oblivion have lasting consequences, while at the same time, we can see the weight of the world they've helped to build grow on their shoulders. By the end of the book, it's clear that their own journeys are defined by the actions which they've undertaken because it's what they felt was right, rather than what their orders were.