What geek doesn’t want to be a superhero and have some really cool gadgets or power armor? My superhero name would be Snack Man because I have the ability to find something to eat regardless of where I am. I could be on a country road 50 miles from the nearest town or lost in the woods, and I will find a diner, a vending machine, or a patch of berries. Until I develop a more useful superpower, all I can do is dream and read superhero science fiction whenever I get the chance.
I first discovered that the superhero science fiction subgenre was more than just comic books and graphic novels when I came across a series of books edited by George R.R. Martin called Wild Cards. In this series, superheroes exist because of an alien virus. The virus kills most of the people infected, which in local parlance is referred to as “drawing the Black Queen.” A small number of people who are infected survive but are deformed in some way (these are the Jokers); a smaller number of people still gain powers, some of which are incredible (these are the Aces); and others are totally useless (these are the Deuces). This series of short stories tells how the virus affects humanity. The personal stories of the Jokers, the Aces, the Deuces, and the rest of humanity are my favorite part of this series. Although the series seems a bit like X-Men (particularly how some government officials respond to the infected), there are enough differences between the series to keep Wild Cards from being a rehash of old stories.
Another interesting book is Masked, edited by Lou Anders and featuring short stories by some well-known authors, including Stephen Baxter and Marjorie M. Liu. In these tales, the superheroes have real issues, some of which are stomach turning. I don’t recommend this collection for the faint of heart unless you like stories in which there’s a downside for every upside.
My absolute favorite in the genre is Mur Lafferty’s Playing for Keeps. In the novel, superpowers stem from a drug taken by mothers during pregnancy. Those children (who are called the first wave) have limited powers, as do their children (who are called the third wave). The heroes (which are rarely called the second wave) have the incredible powers, as do the mysterious villains. (Book cover image courtesy of Amazon.com.)
Unfortunately, for the first and third wavers, the heroes are a bunch of arrogant jerks who prevent those with “useless” powers from reaching their true potential. However, circumstances thrust a group of third wavers and one first waver into the middle of battle between heroes and villains. In the end, they learn that they aren’t without real power of their own. Playing for Keeps is available as a free audiobook. (I listened to the audiobook first, and then I bought it. It seems that a free audiobook is about as free as a free kitten, without the vet bills.)
If you read superhero sci-fi, what novels or short stories do you recommend? What would be your superhero power and name? Let us know in the discussion.
And keep your eyes open for Snack Man! I’ll be easy to recognize — just look for the redhead with the donut.