In case you have not noticed, superhumans are all the rage. Whether it’s being bitten by a spider, receiving a shiny green ring, being struck by some special lightning or meteor, or just by being born this way, people on screen are getting supernatural powers in droves. Movies like Amazing Spider-man and X-Men are obvious ones, but there are also the smaller ones like Chronicle or Push exploring that topic. TV series such as Heroes, Misfits, The 4400 (and a cool anime series called Darker Than Black) all speculate what the world might be like if we started seeing people with abilities beyond the normal limits (comic book icon Stan Lee even led a non-fiction series called Stan Lee’s Superhumans which brought our attention to people in the real world who appeared to have super-human abilities (i.e. they could actually move super-fast, lift super-heavy, hold their breath for a long time, pass electric current through themselves, etc.). Ever since I could play make-believe, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of people with powers so it’s no surprise that I’m equally interested in the expanding corner of pop culture occupied by it.
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey
This novel starts and ends pretty typically. The setup is that humankind is evolving and individuals who have abilities well beyond the baseline are starting to crop up. The world (namely the US) is recovering from incidents where a super-human bump-up can radically alter the face of society (e.g. pattern recognition allows an individual to game the mechanics of global economy). While I loved this idea because normally stories about super-humans (which this book calls “brilliants”) present people who can set things on fire, move objects with their minds, or generally cause havoc. It’s interesting to think that the evolution doesn’t have to be huge to be able to seriously affect humankind. Unfortunately, the story only uses that premise as backdrop. Instead, we are left with a very cliche idea that once the brilliants start to appear, the world will start to hate them, ghettoize them, and start a war with them. That’s the kind of story that has been plaguing the X-Men for the 75 years since Marvel Comics created them. As you might guess, there’s also some terrorism involved (virtually all of these books involve terrorism). Agent Nick Cooper, an operative of the US federal government, is tasked with infiltrating the brilliant underground to prevent the inevitable war that is coming (think “Jack Bauer with super-humans”). The other challenge with all books (but especially ones like these which contain a lot of action) is that the authors over-describe. It’s like they’re trying to set up the movie screenplay that is expected to follow. Scenes are given too many details and use too many contemporary metaphors that seem a bit corny. Once the action kicks in, all we have are surface descriptions of what’s going on, without a lot of reason to care about it all. There is also always a tension between getting deep in describing the ramifications of how the world has been altered by super-humans to just telling a quick-moving story. When authors like Sakey choose the latter, it ends up feeling like there’s only a handful of people who exist in the world, and are dealing with the issues in the story. That leaves room for many holes and flaws which take away from the overall narrative. In the end, I wondered why this story needed to be about “brilliants” anyway. This anti-terrorism story didn’t gain much from the super-human element. It could probably have been a run-of-the-mill Tom Clancy novel and been fine. (3.5 out of 5)
After having read Robopocalypse by the same author, I was a bit wary when starting out Amped, about a world (again, mainly US) where people are becoming super-human (in this case it’s due to cybernetic implantation). Rather than imagining a wide spectrum of implication that this kind of change might have on the world, Wilson seems to get hung up on one-on-one bigotry and bullying. Enhanced hero Owen Gray’s world is full of intolerant thugs who take advantage of social change to push people around. (In fact, even the government is complicit, passing a law to eliminate the rights of implantees — come on!). I’m no social scientist, so perhaps Wilson knows humanity better than I do and this is really what would happen in the US if humans were given implants that made them super-human. However, I don’t feel that it makes for a very enjoyable novel. The story again ends up wasting all the promise of a semi-cool concept and we end up with that same old story of one man’s struggle against oppression and racism in an unfair world. (3 out of 5)
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
This genre-blender goes more for the Saturday matinee than for the serious what-ifs. In this story, there are super-heroes in the world — yes, the cape-wearing, mask-sporting, leaping-over-tall-buildings variety. However, the added element to this book (which is the first of a series) is that there are also zombies (for when one pop-cultural trend just isn’t enough). Apparently unrelated to the rise of super-humans, a plague of apocalyptic proportions left humanity (and again, the focus is on the US — LA in particular) with a majority of people becoming zombies (“ex-humans” or “exes” as they are called). The super-heroes are holed up with some surviving humans in The Mount (which is a repurposed Paramount Studios) where they defend themselves from the relentless onslaught of the exes. While I am no fan of zombie stories, the addition of the super-powerful among those fighting them adds a neat twist. Interspersed throughout the main plot (which involves a showdown between the super-heroes and a street gang known as the “Seventeens”) are flashbacks to when each hero first started their super-powered careers. I actually liked those parts (like early episodes of Heroes) much more than the battle between the super-gang and the zombie-gang. The writing and characters are generally pulpy, and some parts get kind of frustrating when minor human characters start acting hysterically out of mistrust for the super-heroes. Again, that might really happen, but it seems silly to get into how human natures are naturally suspicious right in the middle of a situation like the ones in this story. I applaud Clines for taking super-fiction in a new direction, but why did it have to be zombies? (3.5 out of 5)
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Like its eponymous super-human (which this book calls “epics”) might do, Steelheart completely blew away the competition in the super-human sub-genre. Not only does it take the typical story and turn it on its head, it does so in a very well-conceived world, with an action-packed yet character-driven plot. Starting with a stirring, made-for-movie prologue, we are introduced to Steelheart — an epic of massive power who destroys a bank and ends up transmuting most of Chicago into steel. Cut to ten years later when the one boy who secretly survived that bank attack is seeking out an underground group known as The Reckoners, whose mission is to kill the epics who hold the country under their super-powered thumb. His goal is to get revenge on Steelheart. Even though it sounds like there are many similar elements between this one and some of the others, the rag-tag team of Reckoners is so much more interesting than the characters in the other books. Plus, Sanderson does a good job of conceiving the world that has had ten years of epic rule. He makes sense of how society would behave under this kind of tyranny. One of the clever plot devices introduced by Sanderson is the idea that each epic has at least one weakness, something that will neutralize his or her abilities. Part of the Reckoners’ story is that they try to investigate what these weaknesses would be so they can use them to kill the epics. Even though there are a number of action-movie set pieces, Sanderson does a great job of describing them with just the right level of description and personality (this novel is told from protagonist David’s point of view). Along with David, we get to know the rest of the team: Prof, the wizened veteran and leader; Megan, the young, attractive love-interest; Tia, the brains and heart of the group; Cody, the joker; and Abraham, the strong, silent one. All of them are classic tropes, but they make a fun gang seeking to pull off the impossible. It’s ironic that the best of the super-human novels actually focuses on the humans instead, but that’s only one of Sanderson’s clever conceits. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but this book is the kind of thing that all those super-movie producers should get their hands on quick. (4.5 out of 5)
Check out these two “trailers” for the novel Steelheart
While super-humans as a category of science fiction is definitely here to stay, I hope that they will really break out of the rut that many of these novels seem to be in. Find a fun angle and exciting new story tricks to take advantage of the larger-than-life premise (that just wants to be on the big screen, eh?). Stories like Steelheart really make me excited for that possibility and I know when the movie-adaptation is made, I will be first in line for a ticket.