Turbulence by Samit Basu
|Formatt:||Paperback / eBook|
|Release Date:||July 6, 2012|
The superhero genre is a very crowded one, containing some of the world’s best known icons and most infamous villains. It’s a fast-paced, exciting and incredibly fun genre, but also one that can be filled with cliché and overly simplistic morality. While superheroes are still a strong force to be reckoned with, many would argue (and they might have a point) that there is nothing new to say in the land of capes and spandex and dashing smiles.
Which raises two questions: Does Samit Basu’s Turbulence add anything new to the superhero genre? And, does it really need to? To answer the second question, superheroes, if written well, can be just as familiar as ever and yet still exciting, light-hearted or deliciously dark entertainment. What superheroes should not be is formulaic and tired, and thankfully, Samit Basu’s own superhero story is far from this. The fact that it also does bring something a little new and quirky and post-modern to the (already very full) plate is a welcome and extremely interesting bonus.
Superheroes are not often found in the pages of a novel. More visual, their stories tend to come in comic-book, film, TV, or cartoon form, and so writing a superhero novel is regarded as a challenge. There are a few examples, including the recent Adam Christopher novel Seven Wonders, but in general the superhero novel is something a bit unusual. This is a challenge that Samit Basu has met very successfully. Turbulence is fast-paced and cinematic, capturing the atmosphere of a superhero film with plenty of dialogue and something of a movie-script style. There’s lots of action. The book has three major fight scenes that would be the big-budget set-pieces of a movie, and plenty of smaller chases and scrambles to keep readers entertained. The author writes action extremely well, describing the various superheroes, their powers and their combat in a way that instantly conjures vivid images. In fact, the style works so well that it feels completely natural for a superhero story to be told in this way. Perhaps we’re seeing the superhero novel emerging as a new sub-genre in fantasy books, and I hope there will be many more of them in the future.
The plot of Turbulence revolves around a few of the Indian passengers, and Uzma, a British-Pakistani, on a flight from London to Delhi. Everyone on this flight has developed extraordinary new powers, some more impressive than others. Aman, the main character of the novel, theorises that each person has acquired a power that somehow corresponds with their desire, which in some cases turns out to be far from what the person would consciously wish for. For example, Aman, a man who felt isolated and lost in a city where one’s contacts and connections are everything, can now connect with any communication network instantly, using only his mind. He is constantly online, can hack any secure system, listen to any phone conversation, and is connected to the entire world.
Aman wants to use his new abilities to help others and to save the world; he wants to be a traditional superhero like the ones he has read or watched movies about. He tries to gather the other passengers from the same flight to him, and discovers that someone has been making them disappear. It soon becomes apparent that the flight has created a ‘bad guy’ too: Jai, a man who is intent on using his powers to control others and to bend the world to his own design. And he doesn’t care who he hurts in the process. Aman and his team of heroes naturally find themselves pitted against Jai and his supporters, and superheroics, chases, fights, action, excitement and plot twists ensue.
If that all sounds a bit standard X-men, that’s because it is, but at the same time Turbulence is something very different. In a kind of post-modern superhero meta-fiction, Samit Basu takes the expectations and genre staples of superhero stories and examines them, pulling each piece out like a weird superhero version of the Operation board-game, and then putting them all back again in the same place, but altered somehow, as if the whole picture is now slightly blurred or more colourful than before. It might look the same, but it doesn’t quite mean the same, creating a much more interesting ending than the usual superhero finale, that is, at the same time, a mish-mashed homage to practically every other superhero finale.
So, we get the heroes wondering how they can use superhero fiction to understand and guide their own superhero reality. We get sidekicks who feel inferior because of the very sidekicky nature of their powers, but who not only turn out to be more powerful than many of the ‘real heroes’ but who actually save the day. And we get a bad guy who is unquestionably a bad guy and yet uncomfortably similar to the main protagonist in intentions and morals. We get much more exploration of the ethics behind superheroism; who has the right to control who, and what does it mean to be, not a hero, but a superhero. Does a superhero have the duty to interfere in others’ lives? Do they have the right? What might really happen when a superhero attempts to change the world for the better, even with the best intentions? Superheroism, Turbulence tells us, is subjective, and ultimately all about power.
This is a point that Samit Basu picks up on and explores in several different ways throughout the book. Aman never tried to make the world a better place before he gained his power. He did not volunteer with major relief efforts or charities, or dedicate his life to helping others. Now that he perceives himself as a superhero, however, he sees the world as his problem to change, and he sees his own personal solution as the answer. Other characters, including the main villain, have similar views. Here, the line between good and bad, brave and cowardly, right and wrong, is not as smooth as in some other superhero stories. Is it really the hero’s duty to change the world?
In fact, isn’t changing the world actually the agenda of supervillains? Turbulence prompts us to think about superhero fiction and the various roles that the characters play in it. Heroes tend to stop evil on a smaller, more localised scale until one big villain comes along and sets his sights on the whole city or the whole world. The hero then prevents this. In other words, a superhero can save the world from a bad guy, but not from itself. To attempt the latter is to become supervillain.
What, then, is Aman? What is Uzma? If the book’s main bad guy, Jai, with his plans to change who holds the power in the world, is placed squarely in the supervillain court, and Vir, who wants only to stop him, practically oozes superhero, then what is the uneasy territory where the other characters lurk? In trying to change the world, even to make things better, will Aman and Uzma become supervillains themselves? What is a superhero, really? Turbulence sparks these questions without ever getting bogged down by them; they are not the focus of the story, but a fascinating undercurrent to the action that adds depth and intelligence.
Turbulence still gets its showdown, its big, explosive, guns-blazing punch-em-up (and it’s a very good one too). There’s an inevitability to it, as if to become a superhero is to surrender to the essentials of the superhero plot, and to the final battle of good versus evil, even if good and evil are not such clear concepts as they once seemed. The pieces of the Operation board-game are put back together in the right place, but the end result looks a little different now – less shiny and sure of itself, perhaps, and a little more chaotic.
Turbulence is an excellent book, a thoughtful read that throws out questions without any easy answers, that opens up the superhero genre to deeper analysis, and yet is also an incredibly enjoyable superhero story itself. It’s fun, fast-paced and exciting, with compelling writing particularly in the action scenes. If it falls down in one area it is perhaps in the characters; some were certainly more interesting and well-rounded than others, but there were some who felt a little like superhero stereotypes stuck into the story to provide someone to fight. The romance, also, felt a little flat to me. The plot, however, is a good one, with a few twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I couldn’t put the book down. This is the kind of book that demands a sequel, and, happily, there is one inbound!