Monday, 11 February 2008

Bakelite And Uranium Monday: Thor Meets Captain America by David Brin

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Gregory Benford's anthology Hitler Victorious (1987)
"You..." he exhaled.

Chris kept his face blank. In all honesty, there was no way this side of Heaven that he or Lewis could stop this creature from doing whatever it wanted. One way or the other, the Allies were about to lose their only Aesir friend in the long war against the Nazi plague.

If the word "friend" ever really described Loki, who had appeared one day on the tarmac of a Scottish airfield during the final evacuation of Britain, accompanied by eight small, bearded beings carrying boxes. He had led them up to the nearest amazed officer and imperiously commandeered the prime minister's personal plane to take him the rest of the way to America.
Another BAUM, another cross-genre boundary, this time a story that sits midway between SF and comic books. Thor Meets Captain America is also the first BAUM that is available free of charge, courtesy of the author. First written as a short story, Thor has since metamorphosed into a graphic novel called The Life Eaters. It's probably the commission on this story that has persuaded the avowedly libertarian David Brin to release the original novella, all rights reserved, on his homepage.

Brin is a bit of a legend in SF circles, and needs little introduction: major figure, early 80's SF, was nick-named one of The Killer Bees along with Greg Bear and Gregory Benford due to their joint role in a resurgence of a hard-sf style, his Uplift Trilogy is mindblowing, particularly volumes one and three. Thor Meets Captain America (32 pages) was written for Benford's alternate history anthology Hitler Victorious, and was later nominated for the Hugo award for best novella. It's very silly, it's utterly epic, and it crosses over into the territory of comic books. Thor is a memorable story.

As part of Hitler Victorious, this is a work of alternative history. It is a sub-genre that is not easily worked into short fiction, because the primary punch for the reader is more the timeline itself than the narrative. Writing it you therefore have the choice of either telling it straight as history (as in the case of Joe Steele by Harry Turtledove, which alternates between inspired and irritating) and risking a story that totally violates the show, don't tell(1) rule, or trying to interweave large volumes of exposition with a narrative that is likely to be only of secondary interest. In the case of Thor, Brin does an expert job of the second option.

The plot is one of those wonderfully preposterous ideas that just lets itself get carried away... What if the Nazis, as the close of war approached, somehow brought out a super-weapon if the gods of the Norse pantheon appeared and plucked Spitfires out of the sky like gnats? And from here we get a narrative of Thor and Odin bringing their crashing fists, hammers and spears down upon the wreckage of The Allies, as Africa and west-Asia are consumed in flames. Brin has gone past preposterous in this story and into the realm of a vision of hell.

The primary narrative concerns a potentially war-ending attack by the Allies on the Earthly centre of Valhalla, a suff
iciently apocalyptic idea for the narrative and the historical exposition to maintain a suitable tone between them. And, without giving too much away, the title of the story says it all... This secondary narrative has enough punch to it that it can honestly compete with the heavyweight exposition of the alternate history. Brin clearly has a fondness for comic books, this serves to strengthen the story. He takes the increasingly common view of equating the DC universe with the Norse and Greek pantheons, and I think there is much to be said for this. Science fiction has always had a complex relationship with superhero-mythology, they are both of similar vintage (coming of age in the late 1930's) and have shared numerous major writers (Bester, Harrison, Stephenson and Gaiman) but have different emphasis. Using the pantheon of gods has become quite a popular trick in modern fantastic fiction, and Brin pulls this off with much more flair than Gaiman brought to American Gods. Brin manages here to bring out the gristle and masculinity quality of the form (I really, really, hate it when authors play gods are people too pseudo-realism) to deliver the denouement here, and it is a terrific twist.

It's a crackingly good story, but I am most impressed by the way he manages to set up the atmosphere and interweave the history and narrative. The expanded graphic novel has been less well received
personally I am not sure what there is to add to this short. So please, go read the short on his webpage.. And if you need more of the same, try Jeffrey DeRego's Union Dues stories on Escape Pod, or Power of Two by my friend Sam Hughes (which Brin himself described as "Told in a very skilled manner by someone who writes action well"), or even a TV series called Heroes or something. The super-powered is fertile ground for the fantastic.

(1)On the other hand, I have a pet hatred for the show, don't tell rule, what would Borges or Kafka be like if they followed show, don't tell? "Peter walked into the Library of Babylon, where every room linked into the next to infinity".

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