India, with its rich pantheon of smiling, Play-doh blue gods and swashbuckling mythical heroes (Rama, Hanuman, etc.) has always been a kind of natural setting for a contemporary superhero yarn. Mumbai, in particular, with its vibrancy and swarming sea of humanity, is every bit a city meant to be populated by super-powered beings as New York, London and Tokyo are.
And now, thanks to Samit Basu and his entertaining new novel, Turbulence, it is.
Unlike in the comics, in which the origins of superhero powers are expounded in delightfully pseudo-scientific detail, like the film Chronicle, Basu simply uses an ambiguous plot device to set events in motion: On a certain transcontinental flight from London to Delhi, something strange happens. Those asleep on the flight experience strange, vivid dreams. Others don’t remember much of anything about the flight at all. But pretty soon, they start discovering they all have paranormal abilities.
Where Turbulence brings something new to the superhero mythos is in the nature of the characters’ powers. Although no one gets to consciously choose their powers, each and every one of their powers is, in some way, related to some aspect of their personality or life aspirations. Hence, Uzma, an aspiring Bollywood actress, discovers that she has the passive power to make everyone she meets fall in love with her and want to please her. Vir, a pilot who loves flying more than anything else, becomes, in the words of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie, “a pilot without a plane.” And Tia, a busy mother who often used to wish she could be in more than one place at once, finds that she is now able to produce carbon copies (literally) of herself à la the X-Men’s Jamie Madrox.
No superhero story is complete without a supervillain and here we get that in the form of Jai, an ambitious, power-hungry officer in the Indian military with fantasies of making India the world’s leading superpower. Appropriately, the mysterious flight has made him the most powerful superhuman in the world. The fun in Turbulence lies in seeing how a ragtag group of civilians with B-grade, pedestrian powers find a way to stop what is basically an Indian version of General Zod.
Like many of his colleagues in the fantasy and science fiction genres, Basu is more of a skilled technician than a poet when it comes to prose. He is clearly talented, however, and the action sequences, in particular, are written with clarity and cinematic flair. And in choosing to pepper his tale with plenty of humor and wit, he has made a smart choice since it is exceedingly difficult to convincingly pull off a completely serious superhero story. Turbulence is full of funny, knowing witticisms that could only come from a genuine, longtime fan of comics and superheroes, as when a character utters this line just before engaging in a colossal battle with his rival: “Widespread property damage is so overdone…Everyone’s seen it in the movies. Tear down the London Eye, break Big Ben’s hands, blow up Buckingham Palace – old.”
Somewhere in between all the humor and super power beat downs is a surprisingly sage meditation on the nature of power, ethics and responsibility. Most superhero stories have always worked off the assumption (forever influenced by Spider-Man) that with great power comes yadda yadda. But in Turbulence we see how one character’s campaign to change the world using his powers unpredictably and horribly backfires, suggesting that forced change is not real change and that the world will only get better when people are ready to make it so using their normal human abilities.
As much as I enjoyed Turbulence, however, it was impossible to ignore its flaws, which seem to get worse as the novel reaches its sequel-ready conclusion. Skilled a writer as Basu is, it’s puzzling that parts of certain scenes feel a bit clumsily written. He also lets certain supporting characters just fall off the map and then, later (perhaps when realizing that he forgot about them), lackadaisically explains it away in a paragraph. And being a young author, I feel that he doesn’t yet have a firm grasp on character motivation and psychology. Characters here often say and do things that aren’t believable or seem to go against their disposition. Granted, shifting loyalties, double-crosses and alliances/friendships turning into rivalries (and vice versa) are staple plot devices in comic books, but in the better ones they’re always explained in at least semi-convincing ways. Here, they just kind of happen.
Nevertheless, Turbulence brings together two things that I love, superheroes and India, in a highly enjoyable way, and it’s refreshing to see the fate of the world, for once, hang in the balance of non-Western characters.
A line halfway through the novel perhaps sums it up best:
“Superman exists. And he’s not American.”