Bewildering Stories

Herbert Thomas, The Superlative Man

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Superlative Man
Author: Herbert Thomas
Publisher: Farrar, Straus
   and Giroux, 1997
Hardcover: 0-374-27209-3
Length: 248 pages
Price: $22.00 US
It used to be that science fiction was pretty well defined in readers’ minds. You had no trouble recognizing it during science fiction’s Golden Age: it had Martians and robots and starships and HAL, and everyone recognized the names. Once van Vogt and Asimov and Dick and Heinlein passed on, things got fuzzier. We even call it speculative fiction now. Does the genre include Michael Crichton and others of his ilk who write the thrillers du jour? I bet Crichton’s publishers and agents would press their lips hard if we labeled Jurassic Park science fiction. The term’s more than a little pejorative to most of those involved in cranking out those books that open on the bestseller list. Just look out on the Internet and see how many of those large literary agencies hang out a No Stinking Science Fiction Writers Need Apply shingle right below their names. Somehow they’ve neatly separated Michael Crichton and Stephen King and, yes, Mary Shelly and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, too, on their side of the fence, though these authors are just as much writers of speculative fiction as Edgar Rice Burroughs or Leigh Brackett or Marion Zimmer Bradley. Where does one draw the line between what is called a thriller and one of those weird science fiction things, destined never to be on the bestseller list? OopsI think I’ve answered my own question here!

The Superlative Man is one of those novels that I suspect neither its publisher nor its author would call speculative fiction. It is, though, all the same. The noir world that cub reporter Harvey Gardner inhabits never existed, not even between the pages of Hammet or Chandler. The Superlative Man of the story is a flying superhero, a Superman stereotype in the classic red cape that performs the usual astonishing feats of rescue. Gardner reads all about them in next day’s screaming headlines. Airplane saved from fatal crash! Child rescued from burning building by Our Hero! Sound familiar so far?

But this is a noir world. As the story opens, the Superlative Man has just caused the accidental death of Gardner’s elderly parents. En route to another rescue, the zooming crusader flashes past their windscreen. Fatally distracted, the old couple drives off the cliff to their death. Harvey Gardner never forgets it, though to the world, it’s just one small unfortunate accident. The next day new headlines dazzle them into forgetfulness. Woman tied to railroad is rescued by the Superlative Man! And so on.

Gardner, now a young reporter languishing on human interests stories in Section B, gets an opportunity to expand his career through what seems to be another tragic accident. His mentor, old Martin Gale, dies unexpectedly. Martin croaks while investigating a series of overdose deaths tied to a shady nightclub called High Water. Funny, the people who’ve died have more than drugs as their connection. They were all rescued by the Superlative Man. Gardner, handed Martin’s old assignment for possibly ambiguous reasons, feels all the old ambivalent feelings toward the superhero once more. Could it becould it really be that some of these rescues, these daring double rescues, are staged? Gardner’s soon hot on the trail. He finds himself falling into a classic noir nightmare as he tries to untangle the threads: drugs and mickey finns; hallucinations and deadly dames; friends who might just be more dangerous to his life than enemies, and enemies who just might be heroes in disguise and a trail that might lead him, ultimately, to a tormented superhero.

The Superlative Man is a refreshing spin on the superhero myth portrayed so endlessly and one-dimensionally in popular culture. Imagine Superman thrown into the poisonous world of The Big Sleep and you’ll get an idea. Is even the Caped Crusader going to emerge with his cape still shining? Anyone familiar with noir conventions knows the answer, but gray makes for a more interesting color scheme than black and white any day. And while lacking the depth and intensity of the greatest noir classics, The Superlative Man and its sparse, elegant prose is still a worthy addition to the tradition.

And at the risk of alarming the author, publisher, and agent, I say it’s speculative fiction too, if only to accommodate my weakness for the noir genre and get this review into this column. Readers, if you’re not afraid to enter the shadows, enjoy the night!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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