Tonight, or if that doesn’t work out probably this weekend, I’ll be off to see the latest in a series of superhero movies, one that has been highly anticipated and relentlessly hyped for months. In a couple of weeks, the previous iteration of that series of superhero movies will be released on home video. Then, a little while after that, another superhero movie will be released in the theatres, one that isn’t part of the same series, but sort of related to another movie series that would have been part of the first series if the rights weren’t currently held by different movie studios.
You can probably figure out which movies I’m referring to. But I could have written the above paragraph a few months ago, or a few months from now, and I’m not sure I would have to change a word, because superhero movies are coming out all the time. (It’s not just movies: I’m leaving out all the different superhero TV series.) We’re in the midst of Peak Superhero, and it does not seem to be on the verge of exhausting itself any time soon.
Given this superhero-saturated environment, it’s difficult to take stock of a novel like James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, November 2017). A book that won me over with its title alone, before I knew anything about its contents. It’s a novel about four roommates at the University of Waterloo—one of my almæ matres: I got my M.A. there—who unexpectedly get superpowers and have to figure out what to do with them. It’s a tremendously enjoyable read: let’s get that out of the way first. But in the context of Peak Superhero, a fun novel playing with superhero tropes wouldn’t be enough to rise above the crowd. Comic books are already capable of producing their own meta-narratives, thank you very much.
Fortunately it does something rather more than that: it’s a book that addresses a major contradiction in the various comic book universes: the intersection of “science” (the scare quotes are necessary) and magic-based power systems.
What I mean is that existing comic book universes are an uneasy mix of “science-y” explanations for superpowers and the mystical and magical. Superman is an alien; the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man were exposed to radiation; the X-Men are mutants: the science is ridiculous and implausible, but the origin of their superhuman abilities is vaguely science-ish: it came from a lab, or from outer space. Now compare that to Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider or Thor, whose magical or godlike powers are inconsistent with the rest of the legendarium: this wasn’t a problem when they were all sequestered in their various comic book series, but when you try to assemble them under one roof—when you assemble Avengers—things get … messy. Hand-wavy. Thor becomes an alien, his powers simply extremely high tech. Doctor Strange is basically running computer programs.
With All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, Gardner addresses this inconsistency by positing a conflict not between good and evil, but between the magic-based Darklings—an elite caste of vampires and other undead monsters—and the superhero (and mad scientist) based Sparks, whose powers aren’t quite based on science, but on science-adjacent wish-fulfillment. Physics based on drama and spectacle, as though the TV Tropes wiki had the force of the Rubber Bible. It’s a bit like the Narrative in John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Gardner calls the Dark and the Light “non-overlapping magisteria”: your powers belong to one side or the other, and they’re mutually exclusive. Or at least they’re supposed to be: as the four young UW students discover, their powers are an accidental side-effect of a diabolical plot (naturally) to break that rule.
The viewpoint character, Kim, a nonbinary Asian-Canadian university student who has had a past romantic history with Darklings, shares a townhouse with three other science students, Miranda, Shar and Jools. When the four of them stick their noses into Darkling activity on campus, they’re caught up in an incident that leaves each of them with an assortment of superpowers that reflect their personalities, and quickly throws them into an investigation of some serious things going on. They don’t get much of a chance to breathe, much less figure out their powers or choose their superhero names and costumes (which for Sparks is more important than you might think), before they’re called to the next incident, and the incident after that. The explosions, they are many; the book’s title, it is earned.
So yes, All Those Explosions is absolutely entertaining: light, funny and readable, the kind of crossover book that young readers and adults can both enjoy, especially if they’ve been steeping in a superhero brew for decades. (But then again, who hasn’t, and where is the rock they’ve been living under?) But it’s also more interesting than you might expect. Gardner has done the work in this book. He’s put a lot of thought into how the existence of Dark and Light would mess around with our world—particularly in terms of Darklings and their stranglehold, so to speak, on power and privilege—and his characters are as aware of the inherent absurdities of a superhero/vampire universe as they can be without breaking the fourth wall. And with Kim he’s created a distinctive and engaging voice that draws us through the book (though at some cost to the voices of Kim’s teammates). I’m not sure I’m well positioned to evaluated how well he pulled that (or going with a nonbinary/female superhero team) off, but points for doing it all the same.
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.