Is heroism more about dealing with an external threat, or inner virtues? Orion author Steve Mosby recommends a modern read that looks at a very old question
One of my favourite books of 2014 has been The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. I’ve seen it described a number of times as being like a John le Carré novel with superheroes, and while that’s a fair description, it’s also an inadequate one, which points to how hard this brilliant book is to summarise.
The story posits that in the early 1930s, a German scientist named Vomacht performs an experiment that unleashes a quantum wave of possibility on the world’s population. Most people are unchanged, but some gain superpowers. While they do not age, they can be killed like anyone else, and the novel follows several of them from the events of World War II to the conflicts of the present day.
That account takes us to many important places: Minsk, Leningrad, Auschwitz, Romania, Berlin, Laos, Afghanistan and New York in September 2011. The whole time, the overarching present day story builds to a conclusion that may or may not tie everything together.
What makes a hero? It’s a question the book asks on more than one occasion, and to which it provides no easy answers. The alternative history described in The Violent Century is all but indistinguishable from our own. The same wars and events occur, with the superheroes on each side of the various conflicts effectively cancelling each other out. Late on in the book, one of the main heroes encounters Osama bin Laden, who stares through him ‘as if he’s not there’. For all that his powers manage to change, he might as well not be.
In spite of the title, The Violent Century focuses primarily on World War II, the implication being that it’s the conflict that acted as its own Vomacht wave on the twentieth century, the repercussions spreading out, changing many people’s lives and feeding inexorably into the wars that followed in the years afterwards.
But the book is much more than a study of the cause and effect of conflict. The superheroes don’t age externally, but they do inside, and The Violent Century is ultimately a love story, not between two people (although there is that, and more besides) but between a man and an ideal. It’s a story about a man living through the absolute worst humanity has to offer, while still clinging onto a belief in love and innocence.
Steve Mosby is the author of eight critically acclaimed crime novels. His latest book is The Nightmare Place (2014). He won the 2012 CWA Dagger in the Library, awarded for an author’s body of work.