Samit Basu has made a name for himself in India, the U.K., and elsewhere, with a mix of fantasy and SF fiction. His newest novel, Turbulence, marks his first U.S. release (it’s been out for several years in other countries) and is the first installment of a superhero trilogy.
When Aman Sen disembarks his plane in New Delhi, he, and all the other passengers, discover they’ve been granted superpowers fulfilling their deepest desires. Soon Aman and his friends find themselves contending with the government, the mob, the media, and their fellow travelers, who have grand designs for the brave new world being born. Aman genuinely wants to solve the world’s problems, rather than allow the situation to devolve into the stereotypical superpowered brawl (*cough*Man of Steel*cough*), but that outcome may be inevitable.
Those things that Turbulence does well, it does really well. Unfortunately, that correlation also holds for the things it does poorly.
As an origin story, Turbulence is forced to reinvent the wheel numerous times, falling on the same genre tropes experienced nerds have encountered repeatedly , even as it tries desperately to move past cliche. There are two saving graces here. First, Basu emphasizes on numerous occasions that his characters have knowledge of comic books, referencing characters from Superman to Multiple Man. Aman, in particular, is a bona fide nerd who initially understands the implications of what is going on, although he becomes increasingly uncertain as the book moves away from genre conventions (more on that later). The second is the Indian perspective. Modern superheroes are a very American invention, and, with the huge exception of British writers, here in the U.S. we are unused to looking at them from a non-American point of view or in a non-American setting. In this sense, Turbulence presents a take that most readers will find entirely new.
The comic allusions and Indian POV are two aspects of Turbulence‘s great strength: world-building. The reactions of both our heroes and the general public to superpowers are brilliantly realistic and distinctly un-glamorized. Even more interesting is the portrayal of the media and the awareness of international concerns. Aman constantly considers how the media will attempt to capitalize on the plane’s passengers, and the reactions of the U.S., the U.K., and Pakistan are perennial concerns.
Turbulence experiences a brief second-act success at eschewing genre norms, as Aman takes an unconventional approach to saving the world. Unfortunately, when those efforts (understandably) fail , the book resorts to the necessary — at least, from an action standpoint — fisticuffs, failing to say anything really new and, consequentially, becoming an apologist for the weaknesses of the genre as a whole, a commentary that is even more salient in the wake of “Man of Steel”.
That leads us to the characters. Aman continually shifts mindsets. His concerns about both his personal role and that of the group as a whole are palpable, legitimate, and well-formed, but the way he moves between those opinions is staccato and inconsistent. We don’t see the slow thought processes that we could reasonably expect to lead to such changes. On the other hand, there’s Jai, the principle villain, whose motivations for attempting national — and, later, global — domination start out vaguely admirable (patriotism) and quickly descend to unjustifiable and boring (“Because I can.”) This uncertainty of purpose in the characters leads to changes in the direction of the plot that are often without significant explanation, most notably in the closing pages, where a disagreement emerges so quickly that I had to backtrack and apparently for no other reason than that it’s the expected end to a trilogy’s first chapter.
Most of Turbulence‘s weaknesses (and some of its strengths) seem to emerge because Basu is writing for both the casual reader and the die-hard nerd, which would be fine, if he weren’t simultaneously attempting to deconstruct the genre. Such an attempt requires significant exposition to inform the new readers, at the expense of boring the veterans. Nevertheless, the book maintains a fast, fun pace through the learning curve that keeps it interesting, even as it (presumably) relies on the upcoming sequels for thematic closure.
Every single day, Zac Boone encounters a situation that reminds him how useful telekinesis would be. For more nerd-world problems, follow him on twitter.