With his first novel, David J. Schwartz attempts to imagine ordinary people, in a realistic setting, who gain Superpowers. It's one of the finalists for the Nebula Award.
On the 19th of May, 2001 Charlie and Jack, Juniors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, invite the three girls from downstairs to hang out and try Jack's first successful attempt at home-brewed beer. The beer's pretty good - but in the morning something more extraordinary has occurred than Charlie's fumbling make-out session with his dream girl, Caroline. All five of them awake with a bit of a hangover and new abilities, right out of a comic book.
Each of them has gained one of the more typical powers from our dreams of wish-fulfillment. Caroline, who feels ignored by her globe-trotting cougar mom, can fly. Jack gets mistaken for a big clumsy lunkhead, but now the local farmboy and Chem major is the fastest man alive. Short, bookish study-grind Mary Beth can toss cars around like nerf balls. Charlie, a good-natured but vague and unfocused slob becomes a mind-reader. Harriet is the daughter of a Madison P.D. detective and is haunted by a horrible incident in her past, so she gets the relatively lame power of invisibility. Almost immediately they all decide to band together as a superhero team.
Mary Beth purchases a stack of essential research from an amazingly helpful and informative woman at the local comic book store. Caroline whips up some Lycra costumes in primary colors. Everybody goes to Jack's family farm to practice a few martial-arts moves Harriet picked up. Now properly prepared, they go off to fight crime, foiling an armored car heist on their very first day. At first this has all the makings of a comedy, and I immediately thought of the comic book Freshman by Seth Green and Hugh Sterbakov. Although there are several very funny moments, Schwartz wants us to take his story seriously. This is meant to be a sober, realistic examination of normal confused, insecure kids thrust into fantastic circumstances. The characters are realistically portrayed and believable, but their powers are pure fantasy. The new heroes make no attempt to find out how any of this could possibly be happening. "Hey, I can fly! Well that's weird. Better get me a costume." Magic beer, really?
The powers are also utterly inconsistent with physics. A 5'2" girl stops a speeding car as if it had smashed into a wall. Her outfit gets torn but she hasn't budged an inch. Does she have some sort of force field like Alan Moore used with Miracleman? Apparently that's none of our business, because no explanation is ever given for any of these miraculous feats. Forgive a nerd for nit-picking, but David Schwartz is an avowed comic book fan and should really have known better. I wouldn't want to wade through pages of Character Stats and technobabble, but if he wants to play in a realistic world, he should observe the rules.
Schwartz's characters are well-written with actual depth and personal backgrounds that live and breathe. The passages about Jack and his family coming to grips with his father's losing battle with cancer are especially moving. Like young people anywhere, they also struggle with demanding classes, crummy jobs, and disastrous romances. Most of the cast is very believable, maybe too much so. They are likable, normal - and ultimately, not very interesting.
The third-person omniscient narrative is occasionally interrupted by "Editor's Notes" written in the first person by a supporting character who supposedly wrote the book Superpowers. Marcus Hatch, independent journalist and conspiracy nut, breaks in repeatedly to remind us this is all a True Story, that He Was There, and that Terrible Things will happen before the story is over. He also tosses around some vague ruminations on the nature of heroism. This is all mind-bogglingly annoying. And one of these Terrible Things, hmm... will it happen in the first half of September, 2001?
So do the superheros get involved with the tragic events of 9/11 and their aftermath? Not really. Other than losing people they knew and being horrified and furious, the heroes of this story have no more connection to 9/11 than most of us. Schwartz is telling us that even with superpowers, life is still filled with problems. While that is a bit depressing, his message is neither bleak, nor even particularly original. They keep the streets of Madison safe, but face no supervillain or any major threat other than lawsuits and keeping up their GPAs. There is also some attempt at political allegory, observations of the media and law, even a tantalizing hint of other superheroes in the world. Alas, none of it really goes anywhere. I cannot recommend this lightweight, bland tale of nice kids with superpowers and personal tragedies. It might make a perfect show for the CW, but I doubt I would ever watch it.
Superpowers via Amazon
This month, io9 reviews all the nominees for the Nebula, Hugo and Clarke awards. You can read them all here.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to the Justice League of Dawson's Creek as Christopher Hsiang. Next book, please.