on 23 July 2012
This is one of the most page-turning, heart-melting, imagination-stirring sci-fi books I have every read. Sure, it doesn't take place on any alien environment or give you an eons-wide perspective on life. There are no plots-within-plots or time-travelling mind-benders to enjoy. But what it does, it does absolutely right, even to the point of painful destruction.
Blah blah, all the central characters are fleshed out to the max; the central hero in particular is someone you know, you want to sit down and have a drink with to explore his crazy situation. For me, the writing style was also pitch perfect for the subject matter; rich in description, seamless in expostulation, full enough in information, diverse in form, ranging from the action to the romantic-poetic to the farcical to the 'existential' and back again.
It probably soundly like I'm laying it on a little thick. But Wylie does everything he can to envelope you into the tale. He answers the questions you would ask the characters if you could. You don't feel as if you've been short-changed while he explores his central premise, which is: if you had superhuman strength and invulnerability, there's nothing much you could do to make the world a better place.
This might seem like a grim and even preposterous thesis to you at first. What about the spate of superhero action movies we've been subjected to of late? (I write this review as a lover of the genre and someone who just watched The Dark Knight Rises last night in the cinema.) Don't they all somehow 'save the world'? Two thoughts.
Firstly, Gladiator is without doubt the earliest superhero story I've come across, which makes it the daddy of DC and Marvel. More, the accumulative evidence that Gladiator's hero, Hugo Danner, served in many ways as inspiration for Superman, even in terms of specifics, is hard to ignore. What particularly struck me were: his dark black-blue hair colour, the homely mid-western values designed to keep his powers in check, the descriptions of his powers in terms of steaming locomotives etc, his title as a "man of iron" (slight variation of 'Man of Steel'), his natural sensitivity and loneliness, his first attempts as a boy and youth to exercise his power (lifting wagons, running fast and jumping through forests/fields etc), his obscure day job, his mental mediocrity (relative to his other powers). All this left me thinking, haven't I seen this somewhere before?
Secondly, and more to the nub of the matter, as I read the novel, the purported words of a real world, historical superman kept coming to my brain. I refer to that often-quoted saying of Hannibal Barca, the ancient general who stormed northern Italy via the Alps: 'I will either find a way or make one.' Well our superhero in Gladiator spends all his life trying in every-increasing degrees of desperation to FIND a way, a cause, a campaign, which will justify his amazing abilities. For example, he tries sport, entertainment, war, industry, even, towards the end, crime-fighting and science. All end in failure because of reasons that seem to me exactly realistic rather than contrived to fit Wylie's central premise.
What he never seems to be able to achieve is to MAKE a way of his own, or when he does, it is something relatively trivial like working on a boat, at a smelting factory, as a farm hand. As I read this, it struck me how all-too-human Hugo is despite his great strength. He's just a regular guy who happens to be the strongest man in the world. And so his achievements and dreams are regular too. Instead of being himself and using his strength to amplify who he was, he starts from his strength and fails to find a fulfilling use for it.
This all made me wonder about the true nature of superhumanity. Maybe Lex Luthor is the real Superman, and Clark Kent the representative of mediocrity; Kent can alter time as Superman, but all he does is catch petty criminals and try to make out with Lois Lane. Luthor uses his genius to create time-travel and aims to take over the world. Maybe he deserves to.
At any rate, if you want a story about a superhuman character who is superior not only (or even primarily) in physical abilities, but in imagination, ethics, intellect and schemes too, please read Odd John by Olaf Stapeldon (see my review). When you compare the two supermen, a striking paradox emerges. Those who are normal human beings with a few added extraordinary abilities can't change the world. Those who are true supernormals have the ability to change the world but are so far above it they don't care to.
PS I've just read the synopsis and seen a trailer for forthcoming 'Superman: Man of Steel' movie. Superman in a sea fishing boat, and hitchhiking, complete with beard growth and sad background music? You read it here first, folks; it's all in Gladiator. The only differences are Hugo Danner is from this world while Clark Kent traces his origins from another, and Kent finds purpose in matching with a single, superhuman adversary (Zod) while Danner faces off a sea of frightened, jealous, corrupt humanity, the tide of which even his mighty hands can never hold back.