Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century has done for World War II what The Watchmen did for the Cold War (and should have done for the Vietnam War). I make that comparison not because both feature humans with superpowers, but because they offer an opportunity to look at real events through a hyperbolic layer. Tidhar, like Alan Moore, is interrogating real events with the speculative fiction toolkit, looking not at how it happened historically, but at what about the human condition allowed it. The result, in Violent Century’s case isn’t just a great piece of superhero fiction, but a beautiful novel of cultural and literary merit.
The jacket copy of the novel reads, “…Fogg and Oblivion must face up a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism to answer one last, impossible question: what makes a hero?” I’m loathe to sum it up so simply. While there are some notions of heroism throughout the novel, the quote describes what a fan reckons a superhero novel ought to be without a sense of the novel’s real themes. In the end,Violent Century is a love story. Not a tale of heroism or social commentary, although it is those things too, Tidhar’s novel is the kind of stilted romance built on repressed feelings and unspoken connections.
For seventy years Oblivion and Fogg have guarded the British Empire with their abilities as arms of the opaque Retirement Bureau. Divided by a secret from decades past the pair is called back to answer for their actions. Fogg is a child of neglect, exploited for his ability, and asked to do things he finds incongruent with his morality. Oblivion, meanwhile, is more of a cipher, a mystery to solve. There’s also a woman named Klara who sits at the root of the conflict between the novel’s main characters and at the root of how Tidhar’s world is changed from our own.
The result is a split narrative where Fogg recounts his past, and experiences the impact of those memories in the present. If the story were told in a linear fashion, it would begin with Fogg discovering his powers, learning to use them, going to war, and then coming to grips with the sacrifices he made. As it stands, Tidhar weaves both Fogg and Oblivion’s points of view through the decades: a pair of men who don’t age but are relentlessly eroding.
Violent Century’s world building includes superheroes of all nationalities. Although the point of view is from the United Kingdom, Tidhar offers glimpses into America’s heroes who parade around in spandex pajamas, trumped up propaganda machines in addition to weapons. The German Übermenschen are extensions of the Nazi war machine, openly flaunting their powers at the head of death squads and secret police. Fogg and Oblivion, and their British colleagues, are more subtle. They rarely reveal themselves, operating in secret to nudge the outcome in a direction rather than redirect it entirely.
Throughout the narrative representatives of each of these factions cross and overlap. Most striking in their interactions are the notions that they all suffer from the same erosion, which reflects on the notion that we are all the same. Even for those with out-sized abilities and unchecked lifespans, war and violence are a millstone that crush us beneath it. Sadly, the message is that despite a grossly altered world and ‘heroes’ with great individual power little has changed. The Holocaust still happens, the Cold War marches on, the century is still violent.
Tidhar’s tone throughout is conversational, stark, and gloomy. The prose is less about artful construction than rugged purpose, communicating what’s happening like snippets of memory.
The guard looks bored, a thin man with skin the colour of nicotine stains. Comically wide ears. Talks to the driver, briefly. Nods. Opens the gate.
There’s haunting beauty in its simplicity. Like voices in an empty warehouse Tidhar’s prose echoes about to fill the space. Each reflection conjures new sounds. The end result puts mood ahead of imagery. It’s I often associate with noir, which Tidhar clearly references through puffs of cigarette smoke and fogged alleys.
From plot to structure to theme, the novel is simply special. It’s as if Ian Tregillis’s Bitter Seeds had been written by Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern, a superhero war novel with a sense for historical detail and conscious of its ability to impact with structure and style. Tidhar has the chance to become this generation’s Ursula LeGuin, an author who is equally capable of engaging readers on a surfeit of levels, as socially conscious as he is literary, and as reckless as he is in control. The Violent Century is unquestionably one of the finest novels of 2013.
Lavie Tidhar is no longer a rising star in the genre, but one burning bright.