Soon I Will Be Invincible is out this month in paperback from Random House’s Pantheon. The hardcover was my favorite fiction read of last year. Which is saying something because I go through an average of a couple hundred books a year. From some of the promo when the book was first released, I sort of assumed it was going to be a geek chic thing. If there was ever something I was into that I had thought nobody would pretend to like just to be cool, it was being into fandom and having a big brain. Which just goes to show that, no matter how smart you are, sometimes you’ll get it wrong. When I finally got around to picking up Soon I Will Be Invincible, I couldn’t put it down.
The story is an exploration of the issues of alienation and self-confidence which face someone who is exceptional. A person can be different from the other children without being technically lesser, yet there is still enormous alienation which comes with being different. In a very real way, a top scientist or a top athlete or a top musician is truly alien, in the dictionary sense that he or she is estranged and unlike those who should be his or her own. I have often observed among my friends and acquaintances, in real life, that those who are just a bit above average often seem to function best in society. A person with a 120 IQ succeeds in a general way more often than a person with a 180 IQ. Human beings are social animals and that is just the way the system works. Which is not to say that someone who is exceptional should just throw in the towel, but exceptional people need to have exceptional self-confidence, because being genuinely different can be crushingly difficult. Soon I Will Be Invincible is a deep and sensitive exploration of alienation and how self-confidence can be the main difference between success and failure and, at least in society’s perception, the main difference between good and evil.
The actual plotline of Soon I Will Be Invincible alternates points of view between supervillain Doctor Impossible and beginner superhero Fatale. Doctor Impossible has been at the supervillain gig for so long that he finds himself matching wits and powers with his enemies’ children now. Fatale was turned into a cybernetic superwoman after a fairly recent accident and she is just adjusting to working with a super team. Fatale has lost her memories of growing up, while Doctor Impossible is tortured by his own memories of coming of age.
“I didn’t cultivate friendships, just a nerdy camaraderie with the top few science students. But I was the usual combination of petty arrogance and abject loneliness. I was ashamed of my desperate eagerness to please, and unable to control it. Why should I be singled out from other people as uniquely gifted, and uniquely worthless? I ate my lunches alone, and it’s a small blessing my diaries were destroyed . . . The humiliations build up, and you know you’ll never get back at them, even though somewhere inside you’re better than they are. The real you is somewhere else, someone invisible, unknowable. Someone impossible.”
Doctor Impossible suffers from MHD or Malign Hypercognition Disorder. The basic idea being that most people at the very top end of the bell curve of intelligence will be susceptible to turning out “evil”.
“My peer group is largely a collection of psychotics, aliens, and would-be-emperors.”
Truthfully, Doctor Impossible craves acceptance, appreciation, and respect more than he wants to do wrong, so it is hard to see him as evil evil. He might tell the President of the United States to call him Emperor, but it is not like he is particularly cruel. The only places where I can’t relate at all and his morality bothers me are first when he admires a double-crosser and later when he takes an opportunity to be the bully for a change. There are few things I loathe more, for example, than a gothic club kid who exults in finally getting to be the one who snickers with comrades at the person who is different but wants to be accepted. I think the goal should be a better social paradigm and not just changing roles, but I digress. Doctor Impossible has a 300 IQ, super strength, and a gnawing frustration over his continuing failure to achieve global domination, but he does not wholly feel like he really had a choice. He feels like there is an inadequacy hard-coded into his being which makes all his gifts irrelevant.
“Maybe I should have been a hero. I’m not stupid, you know, I do think of these things. Maybe I should have just gone with the program, joined up with the winning team, and perhaps I would have, had I been asked. But I have the feeling they wouldn’t have wanted someone like me. They’d turn up their noses or just never quite notice me. I knew some of them in high school, so I know . . . If you’re different you always know it, and you can’t fix it even if you want to.”
Raise your hand if you have ever felt that way. Yup, expected to see a lot of hands raised on that one. Doctor Impossible’s portrayal is very sympathetically written. He is shown being bullied as a teen, while those who would grow up to be superheroes did nothing to protect the weak then. He generally toils alone or with a few friends, while the superhero teams have corporate sponsorships and governments backing them. When the supervillain Doctor Impossible speaks of his time fighting for prize money in unlicensed hero fights, the parallels to academics who end up in the underworld in general are inescapable. Although the dalliance with self-harm and a potentially unusual haircut might resonate as well.
“. . . the first time I met anyone at all like me, ones who had found the power but said no to the mask and cape, to the role. Of course, most of them were nothing like me — criminals with no advanced degrees, some of them hadn’t even been to high school. But like me, they’d said no, and they hadn’t found anything worth saying yes to. It’s the closest thing I’ve felt to belonging.”
Doctor Impossible chooses his arch-nemesis CoreFire based partly on his deep envy of the apparent ease with which CoreFire strolls through life with things going his way.
“He always fulfilled expectations, as if he’d never had to make a decision at all . . . I never understood CoreFire or liked him particularly . . . He could fly, which was reason enough to resent him. He didn’t even have the decency to work for it, to flap a pair of wings or at least glow a little. He seemed to do it purely out of a sense of entitlement — something about it suggested that the rest of us have simply knuckled under to gravity . . . When I think about it CoreFire must have . . . a story too, something better than that a smug, popular jock accidentally became a smug, popular superhero. No one could possibly be as boring as he seemed.”
I have the personal notion that things are not always quite so fated. I think I base that feeling on having moved around so often that I got slotted into a lot of different roles, without noticing huge differences in myself. I am inclined to believe that, if I do the right thing, even if my current closest circle of acquaintance is not into it, somewhere there is a group of people who will be. And that makes caving to social pressure unnecessary. There is no you-and-I-are-a-lot-alike speech in Soon I Will Be Invincible, but I don’t think I am reading too much in when I say that the hint is there, with a character who switches sides and other things, that one could choose to take a different path, that we do have freewill.
Now that I have gone on a bit more than intended about the psychology of Doctor Impossible, you can probably glean who the real protagonist of the book may be, supervillainy or no. I could relate to some of the other viewpoint character, the rookie superhero Fatale’s insecurities as she joins a highly-respected and storied super team. They had a very frosh year of college or first year in Hollywood sort of feel, where she wonders if she will be up to the challenge and is awed by the abilities, accomplishments, celebrity, wealth, and easy charisma of her teammates.
I don’t know whether author Austin Grossman suffers from Malign Hypercognition Disorder or not, but he is certainly a genius. In USA Today, the brilliant author bucks the modern trend towards pretending to have invented the wheel and credits his literary influences, citing,
“Alan Moore and Frank Miller, “who really opened up the superhero genre. The rest is a mix — bits of Catcher in the Rye, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and a dash of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.”"
Those who know their Marvel and DC Comics universes, and especially fans of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, are sure to enjoy the superhero and supervillain psychoanalysis of how powered individuals would really behave and feel in the real world. But I think that Soon I Will Be Invincible will speak to anyone who has ever felt alienated for being different, like what should be their gifts just set them apart and gave them extra obligations and extra loneliness.
“There is a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.”