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August 6, 2008

Book Notes - Austin Grossman ("Soon I Will Be Invincible")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible brings superhero comics to prose. Alternating chapters between the perspectives of an evil supervillain and a cyborg superhero, Grossman's novel is a fast-paced and refreshing read. The characters are well-drawn (no pun intended), and we get a glimpse behind the capes to see what drives a person to villainy as well as heroism.

In his own words, here is Austin Grossman's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, Soon I Will be Invincible:

Soon I Will Be Invincible Mix, or

Love Songs for Depressed Cyborgs and World-Conquering Mad Scientists

Soon I Will Be Invincible is about how superheroes and supervillains feel, what it feels like to need to take over the world and fail; or to walk around the regular world with armor plate and a chain-gun implanted in your forearm. It starts with a supervillain in his prison cell, thinking about why, exactly, the smartest man in the world is in jail. At the same time, a military cyborg is in a meeting with the greatest superheroes in the world; she can see how different these people look from five feet away, and wonders exactly who she is and what her powers mean to her.

When I wrote it, I was writing the book I would have liked to have a long time ago; I went about putting together the playlist in the same spirit. I paired each song with a passage from the book.

This is the mix for those nights in your hidden island fortress, when it’s five in the morning and you can’t sleep, and CNN’s stuck on another economic summit. You’re blacked out and can’t work because some hero team is trolling the South Seas, you're doodling assembler on notebook paper just to keep busy. The heat is unbearable, and it’s an hour until dawn and the slow tropical sunrise over the lagoon, and you’re thinking about how far you are from home, and that this whole thing was maybe not such a brilliant idea after all, but there’s nothing you can do about it now.

This is the mix for when you have to ride Amtrak and people are staring at your height, the armor plating, the glint of metal in your skull, the lens that replaced one eye. You get a seat to yourself even though people are standing, because no one want sit too near the fusion reactor in your pelvis. And you know you're just a line-item in the DoD's black budget, or a B-list metahuman with maintenance problems, but if you think about the other way you're an exotic armored warrior princess, and you're trying to figure out which is closer to the truth.

Either way - put it on repeat, and you'll get through the next 8 hours more or less okay.

"Geek," by MC Chris

A shout of pure nerd defiance, this song is, I warn you, by turns tasteless and obscene, plus it will kick your ass so listen at your own risk. But if you're ever tempted to remark to your nemesis, "We are not so different, you and I," ... think of this song. It reminds you there is a difference, that we're not the same as them. They're going to get the girl and we're going to jail, and that's the way that story goes.

Go out to the last few grains of sand, the smartest of the smartest of the smartest, times a thousand. It makes sense that people would be a little odd out here. But you really have to wonder why we all end up in jail.

"Weis & Hickman," by Melt Wizard

I am in awe of the tortured logic that produced this song, in which the paired names of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, co-authors of the D&D-licensed Dragonlance series come to symbolize romantic longing. Nonsense, you say, but the song-writers' intimate knowledge of the pair's collected writings gives this song legs and authenticity. It's a power-pop ballad that begins, "You started out writing books about computer graphics/ On the way to DragonCon once, we got stuck in traffic..." I don't care if it rhymes, it has the unmistakable tang of true romance.

The wedding of Damsel and Blackwolf was the brightest moment of 1980s superherodom, a union of the two founding members of the greatest super-team in the world, at the height of its powers. The added fact that Damsel was Stormcloud’s daughter made it a matter of superhero royalty. They were our Charles and Diana.

"Skullcrusher Mountain," by Jonathan Coulton

This may be the definitive lovestruck world-conquering mad scientist track, as sung to his beautiful unwilling captive. Alternately tender, pleading, oversensitive ("Would it kill you to be civil??") and megalomaniacal - it's just about perfect. It tails off with "I shouldn't kill you yet," and I long to think that in the next moment she swoons into his arms, even as I know it will never ever happen. Or will it?

I would snatch her off the street and roar off in a supersonic aircraft of my own design, then tie her to the columns in my laboratory as the doomsday machine powered up. And if my eyes behind the mask seemed to gleam with a special, yearning intensity, waiting for her to look, to recognize me, I don’t think she took any notice. Something about my approach just failed to attract her attention. In later years, true, we drifted apart. You can’t just take the same hostage every time.

"Hard Knock Life," by MC Hawking

The ultimate nerd detournement of gangster cool! A word-for-word, grunt-for-grunt re-staging of the original Jay-Z song as performed in the deadpan synthetic voice of physicist Steven Hawking. It's the cultural tension that powers the whole MC Hawking ouevre, but this, his only straight cover that I know of, is its starkest example, unblinking nerd menace from start to finish. And the fact that it doubles down, by appropriating what was already a gangster-rap appropriation of the song from Annie sends this one into the stratosphere.

Blast this one at the supervillain party of your choice, just don't run out of Ketel 1:

I step through a slit in the plastic sheeting and into the light. It’s going strong tonight, thirty or forty of us milling around, the usual assortment of half-brilliant, half-unlucky types sitting in twos and threes. A man made of rock. Something like a demon-woman, horns and a tail. A man clad in metal armor, holding an ax; a pale blue man, translucent. Half a dozen others in bright-colored leotards, some with golden or red auras, or glowing eyes, some displaying symbols of skulls, lightning bolts, animals. Losers and geniuses and Olympic-class athletes, with nothing much in common except the preference above all else to reign in his or her personal hell. And that feeling of menace, that vibe that tells you, somehow, these aren’t the heroes.

"The Downside of Computer Camp," by Barcelona

I don't know exactly what is happening in this song. I just wish it were happening to me.

I never really had a girlfriend before that, or afterward, obviously. We met around the time of the Legion of Evil fiasco that Mentiac had put together, which had seemed like such a good idea at the time.

"Twenty Minutes of Oxygen," by Darkest of the Hillside Thickets

A man, a plan, a time machine. A man's younger self. A governess. A terrible, terrible mistake. Twenty minutes of oxygen. Always observe elementary time travel safety.

He fought the Super Squadron long before I did, even cruised the timestream and fought the SS3000 centuries from now. One time, he threw in with his own alternate-dimensional self to steal a fortune in gold, only to cheat his double out of the proceeds. Classic.

"I Know What You Think of Me," by Barcelona

Picture this person, later in life, with an implanted chain gun, enhanced reflexes, and IR vision and subdermal armor plate.

There’s a digital buzz at the back of my voice that the techs never managed to erase. When I sit back down, one armored elbow clacks noisily against the marble tabletop. I don’t wear a mask, but I fight the urge to hide my new face behind the silver hair they gave me. Most of it’s nylon.

"It Is Pitch Dark," by MC Frontalot

"You are likely to be eaten by a grue..." Frontalot narrates his slide into insanity as spurred on by an early addiction to text adventures ("Thanks, Grandpa, for buying it, now my life's ruined"). Notice the Infocom-style slide between past and present, first and second person, reality and simulation. Who exactly is likely to eaten? You? Me? We don't know. It is pitch dark. Watch the video on youtube which guest-stars legendary Infocom designer Steve Meretzky who just nails his cameo.

I wrote code for computer games I ran on the primitive mainframe the school had, partners at chess, and even a dungeon game, where I steered a tiny swordsman or wizard through endlessly layer-caked levels that spiraled into the earth, sunken ballrooms and throne rooms and treasure houses giving way to caverns, grottoes, and lightless oceans, and still deeper caverns below those....There was never any sense who had dug that deep, or why, or when I was going to find the real bottom, but I never wanted to stop, knowing a great prize rested there, a centuries-old glittering treasure or hidden revelation, buried fathoms-deep under stone and earth; a relic from the deepest past, precious as life and ancient as childhood memory.

"What We Need More Of Is Science," by The John Benjamin Band

You have almost certainly never heard this amazing song, which opens with a sample out of Weird Science, so what are you waiting for? It comes out of a Songfight contest - a bunch of different artists try to write the best song using the given title - this one taken from Achewood. The John Benjamin Band's entry took second place to MC Hawking's song of the same name (which itself derives from Achewood). And as we all know, the second place winner is really the #1 Loser, and that is what we strive to become.

I’m going to put on a mask and scrawl my name across the face of the world, build cities of gold, come back and stomp this place flat, until even the bricks are just dust. So you can just shut up. All of you. I’m going to move the world....Peterson was the same as middle school had been, only maybe more so. There had to be a way out of this, all of it. In my head soared louder and louder the sad, sweet songs of science.

"One of Our Submarines," by Thomas Dolby

Forget what you've heard, this is the definitive song by nerd-rock godfather Thomas Dolby. A track off of Golden Age of Science, which I listened to on cassette tape with the lights out, this is the song that swept my 14-year-old imagination into a swirl of snow, seawater, and freezing metal out into the North Sea. I think it has a future life as a steampunk anthem.

Under the laboratory dome, an enormous spherical mechanism lies frozen in decay. A stray beam of heat vision made a tiny hole to let the moisture in, and the delicate mechanisms, so smooth and finely balanced that a child could turn them with one hand, rusted into a solid mass. And Phathom-5, a supercomputer built to plot the arcs of shattering atoms, is silent; tropical rains now fall into the sterile core, where the tiniest particles of dust were once forbidden. The plasma rifles mounted alone the eastern wall are silent, and the particle accelerator is still, pointed upward at a seventy-degree angle, garishly painted and crested with radiator fins. A family of osprey nests in the barrel.

"Space Suit" - They Might Be Giants

The gorgeous instrumental track at the end of Apollo 18; futuristic, grandiose, achingly melancholy. This is the tiny undercurrent of sadness that runs under all the greatest science, made audible.

Tendrils of energy whip out and charge five subsidiary poles, and the whole apparatus begins to turn, ever so slowly, massively, nudging the Earth off course without breaking it apart. Slowly, almost imperceptibly bringing the whole ponderous business, the whole cosmic clockwork to heel. For a second, I stand at the fulcrum point of creation. God I’m so unhappy.

Honorable Mention: the entire score of Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Austin Grossman and Soon I Will be Invincible links:

the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website
the book's page at the publisher
the book's Wikipedia entry
the book's video trailer
excerpt from the book

Ain't It Cool News review
A.V. Club review
Blogging for a Good Book review
Entertainment Weekly review
Girls Read Comics review
January magazine review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge review
Oregonian review
Popmatters review
Powell's Books review
The SF Site review
Trashotron review
USA Today profile of the author
Wired review

Authors@Google video of the author
Comics Bulletin interview with the author
The Inside Flap interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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