Turbulence by Samit Basu
Published by Titan UK, July 2012. (July 2013 in the US)
ISBN: 978 178 116 1197
At the moment superheroes are hip and smart. Films such as the rebooted The Amazing Spider-Man (due any time now as I type), Iron Man (the third instalment now being filmed) and The Dark Knight (also the third incarnation of the Nolanverse Batman due this summer) are all current. The Avengers is one of the biggest grossing movies of all time. TV series such as Heroes and Alphas have raised the awareness (although admittedly, in the case of Heroes, crashed and burned in the end.) In text, George RR Martin’s Wild Cards series has had a rebirth, and books such as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible seem to have tapped into this zeitgeist.
In such a fervent atmosphere, I think Samit Basu’s novel Turbulence will be enormous.
It is, unabashedly, a new style modern superhero novel with a distinctive twist. It is also current, smart, energetic and a sparkling read.
The story’s setup is fairly simple. On a plane journey from London to Delhi, Aman Sen and his fellow passengers (403 of them) experience something strange and the result is that everyone who disembarks in Delhi has superhuman abilities. Each one is different. Aman’s skill is the ability to access global communication networks without equipment. Others on the plane have similar strange powers: we have hopeful Bollywood actress Uzma who seems to charm everyone she meets, Vir who can fly at supersonic speeds without mechanical means, Tia who can be in more than one place at once. Throw in a mad scientist and his crackpot inventions and you have a Justice League team to end all Justice League teams (or rather “World-Changing-Super-Squad” as one of the characters calls themselves.)
The key plot point is this: when being given such gifts, what do you do? Do you aim for helping the masses, organise world peace, stop wars, make life better, or do you concentrate on getting what you want, at the expense of others?
Samit’s book looks at these thorny questions. Some of the solutions (and their consequences) are realistic, intelligent and thought through effectively. To paraphrase, the book takes on the old Spider-Man adage, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’, or, even simpler, ‘all actions have consequences’ and then follows them through to some interesting conclusions. Aman’s attempts to bring about world peace, support environmental concerns and reduce global inequality ultimately lead to more of the same: the bad guys simply find new ways of carrying on what went on before.
And when one of the newly enhanced humans decides that the way forward for global domination is to rule by fear rather than reason, then Aman and many of the other characters here are divided in their actions. Do they support him in his aims for the greater good, or denounce him as a misguided despot? Some of the choices made (in what Aman calls his ‘Face Darth Vader’ moment) are not what we would usually expect.
There are some lovely set pieces as the team discover and increase their new powers. A showdown between two brothers from an Indian gangster family who were on the plane and the rest of the team is brilliant in its pace and execution. The ultimate showdown at the end of the book in London is as exciting as you would hope for, and not entirely what you expect.
This is good in itself. But what is most impressive is that the book takes common traditional superheroes themes and then writes about them from a very different perspective. Whilst some of the ideas are not new (see the list of other similarly themed work at the beginning of this review), as most of the action takes place not in the traditional locale of the US, but in Asia, in India, there is a different outlook to the superhero mythology that is quite refreshing and not something you would normally read in, say, a Marvel comic book. Turbulence involves topics as diverse as Bollywood, cricket, media networks, celebrity hype and Hindu god-worship. The characters are of varying social backgrounds, and each has enough variety to be both diverse and engaging.
Most of all, the frenetic pace is great and the dialogue fizzes with whip-sharp quips and comments. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s intelligently witty, it’s great.
This was a welcome and very pleasant surprise. Think of it as Heroes meets Slumdog Millionaire, or Ian McDonald meets Stan Lee. Once started, I found it difficult to put down. Loved, loved, LOVED it.
Mark Yon, June 2012.