What makes a man?
What makes a hero?
A tall, pale, aristocratic-looking man walks into a pub in London. The pub is almost impossible to find, hidden under a railway arch, lost in thick fog. There is only one patron at the bar.
“The Old Man wants to have a word with you,” the tall, aristocratic man tells him.
Clearly, these men know each other well. No, the man at the bar growls, he’s retired. It’s about an old file, the tall man explains. Which file, the bar patron wants to know.
Oblivion says a single word. Sommertag.
The fug of smoke crescendos around Fogg, a beekeeper’s protective mask. That single word, like a bullet with a name engraved on its side.
The bar patron hurls his shot glass at Oblivion’s head. Oblivion raises his hand, wiggles his fingers, and the glass disintegrates into dust.
Without further resistance, the man at the bar rises and follows Oblivion to an office building, where the Old Man, his former spymaster, leads him gently through a series of questions about a missing week in 1943.
The two men are Oblivion and Fogg. During World War II they were a team, recruited along with other mutants, men and women who developed miraculous abilities when they were caught in the Vomacht Wave. Recruited to a secret training facility called the Farm, these two lonely young men become friends while they learn to harness and control their unique powers.
The backstory: In 1933, a German scientist by the name of Dr. Joachim Vomacht invented a machine that shot out a probability wave, altering every human being who happened to be in its path, all over the world. Suddenly, there are people who can create fire with a snap of their fingers. Some can turn saliva into a weapon, or conjure up ice, control time, or the weather. Some create walls of smoke and fog to hide behind. And as in real life, some are capable of destroying everything they touch.
The Germans call them Ubermenschen-supermen. As always, there are people suspicious of such powers, and fearful of those who possess them. But as World War II draws near, each country goes seeking its own supermen – and devises ways to use them.
The Axis and the Allies alike recruit their native Ubermenschen to fight the war. The Americans turn theirs into cartoonish national heroes, complete with silly costumes and publicists. But the British Ubermenschen spymaster trains his spies to be invisible. They aren’t permitted to fight. They are merely tasked with observation, to see that all the sides are equal, that no one nation has the advantage of having more powerful Ubermenschen than the others.
Oblivion is a man with a mysterious past and the terrifying ability to obliterate anything he touches. He’s a perfect spy, a man accustomed to living with secrets of his own. Henry Fogg is the bullied, sensitive son of the town drunk. He manages to fight his way up the social ladder to university in Cambridge (where, in fact, the British Secret Service really did cultivate spies), when he is spotted and drafted into the cause. Oblivion and Fogg complement each other; in the deadly places to which they are sent, Fogg creates a smokescreen to hide them, while Oblivion reaches out and does the dirty work.
The Old Man, a Smiley-like figure who runs the British Ubermenschen unit, sends this dynamic duo to the worst of war-torn locations; to Minsk, where the Einsatzgruppen are hard at work shooting civilians and Jewish Russian supermen rise from the ice; to besieged Leningrad, where starving Russians are hacking the flesh off dead horses and Russian Ubermenschen like the Red Sickle and the Great Soviet destroy German soldiers from the sky; to Transylvania, where Ubermensch partisans lurk in the forests and Ubermensch SS men hunt for them; to Paris, which is enchanting and romantic even under German occupation.
It is in Paris that Fogg breaks the rules, falling dangerously and irrevocably in love with someone on the German side, a girl with an extraordinary gift; the ability to recreate one particular perfect summer day, over and over again.
Where there are supermen, there must be super villains. The Germans have an Ubermensch with an unfair advantage; the Wolfsmann, a man with the ability to sniff out other supermen-and to nullify their powers. The Ubermenschen he discovers are captured and sent to Auschwitz, where the infamous Dr. Mengele conducts experiments on them.
Despite the Old Man’s directions, that they are there merely to observe, Henry’s innate decency and humanity bring Oblivion and Fogg into the battle. He is constitutionally unable to stand by and watch Nazis slaughter innocents.
But the Old Man knows all this. What he would really like to know is what happened in Paris, when Fogg vanished for a week. And one other detail; Fogg reported that he’d killed a hated German supervillain known as Snowstorm in 1946, in Berlin’s Soviet zone. But, funny thing, the Russians never found his body. Could Fogg please clarify this matter?
Lavie Tidhar, an Israeli author now living in London, is the winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. He writes forcefully and cinematically about Auschwitz, about the fighting on the Eastern Front, about the brutality of war. In writing this novel of fantasy and alternate history, he has used many historic people and events. There are searing, powerful chapters populated with Jewish Ubermenschen, who are cast as Russian and Romanian partisans, or fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. A particularly sharp passage imagines that Israel has captured Dr. Vomacht and put him on trial, in an echo of the real-life Eichmann trial. Vomacht is tried for war crimes, for inventing the machine that turned men into supermen, but more importantly, for visiting Mengele at Auschwitz to observe his experiments on Ubermenschen. Is he really being tried for war crimes? Or for the misfortune of being a German scientist at precisely the wrong time in history? (In these chapters, Tidhar explores Operation Paperclip, the American race to secure as many Nazi scientists as possible before the Soviets swept them up.)
An astonishing number of people come to testify on Vomacht’s behalf, including many Ubermenschen who fought on the Allied side. There is also an author by the name of Stanley Lieber, who mutters, “With great power comes great responsibility,” in a sly nod to Stan Lee, the man who created Spiderman. These witnesses don’t believe Ubermenschen are abominations. On the contrary, they believe humanity needs more heroes.
This is a novel about war, about courage, and about love, awash in questions of moral ambiguity. What makes a man? “The Violent Century” asks. What makes a hero? Can a man still be a hero if he lacks the quality of mercy? Is it still pure science if it is pressed into the service of pure evil? Should ordinary Germans have risked their lives to stand up against Hitler? If you had to make a deal with the devil in order to save someone you loved, would you do it? Would you kill for that person? Would you want immortality if it meant living in a time you didn’t like or understand? Is anyone innocent in wartime?
If you love Philip K. Dick, Lavie Tidhar should be your new favorite writer. The writing soars, traveling back and forth between the past and present, doing that thing science fiction does best, tackling big issues with the helpful distancing device of fantasy. Tidhar’s characters may be superheroes, but at heart they are flawed, sad, achingly lonely people, damaged by what they have seen and by what they have been forced to do, searching for love and some semblance of an ordinary life in a hostile world. Just like the rest of us.
Imagine some crazy marriage of the movies X-Men First Class with the following books – Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” John LeCarre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” – and you begin to get an idea of what this book is about.
This is an unforgettable read, with haunting, cinematic passages, moral choices in every shade of gray, and nuanced, deeply affecting characters.