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Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Who Can Save Us Now" - A Review

Okay, so earlier this month I recieved a review copy of "Who Can Save Us Now?" This is a book featuring short stories about superheroes. I actually owed this review a long time ago but there were some chaotic events that kept me from reading it until now.

It's hard for me to review this book for the basic fact that, having read it, I don't think I'm actually the target audience for this book. For one thing, I don't much care for short stories in general, I prefer novels to sink my teeth into, but also, well, I don't think these are superhero stories so much as they are general fiction stories using vague superpower trappings as a medium.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

A few years ago, I took a fiction writing class. I thought it would be neat to learn to write stories. I had high hopes of learning to write in various genres: adventure stories, science fiction, fantasy, history, romance...

Actually, as it turns out we didn't write in ANY of these genres. See, apparently there's a difference between writing fiction and writing genre fiction. I learned this the hard way when my teacher made me redo one of my assignments where we had to build a story around this very weird bit of dialogue about a guy claiming to be a plumber talking to some woman. She said that my story had "too much plot" and was "like a tv show." Me, I said "Well, does it sound like an entertaining tv show?" She said, "I suppose, but you need to rewrite it."

I don't remember what my original story was, I think I'd decided the dialogue sounded very ominous, so I decided to make it some sort of coded spy dialogue that was a warning that someone was about to kill the other person. I'm not going to claim it was a good story, but I would have been happy to get graded on its merits. My second story ended up being some conversation between two old people who reunited after a very long period of time.

I can't fairly evaluate the quality of the first story. But I do know that the second was hackneyed, contrived crap deliberately meant to play on cloying sentimentalism. It was terrible. But worse, it was boring.

And I got an A. That's when I realized the professor and I were simply working with two different concepts of what made good writing. Her criteria included things like craft and workmanship, subtext and subversion and deeper underlying themes and meanings. Mine ultimately is simply that it entertain or capture the imagination of the reader. I can't imagine anything more thankless than writing fiction that DOESN'T do those things. But that's why I'll never write the next Great American Novel or Short Story. And I'm okay with that.

For the record, I ended up with a B in the class. Though I did have to rewrite a few more stories.

But anyway, that entire digression does have a point. The stories in Who Can Save Us Now? often make lip service to Captain America, the Avengers, Kirby, Kane, Shuster, and so on, but I don't really get the impression that most of the writers truly love superhero comics. Heck, some of these stories are not even superheroic at ALL, and bear more resemblance to Kafka than Superman.

This is not to say the stories are bad, though personally I found more than a few to be over-enamored with their own cleverness. The best example of this, I think, is the story "Girl Reporter" which takes a Superman-Lois Lane type relationship but paints the superhero as an image conscious, immature meathead. Not only is that sort of warping of the dynamic not even remotely a new idea...personally, I'd say Wally West and Linda Park did that much better...but the biggest impression I got from the story was smugness.

A lot of the writers did have very interesting character examination pieces here. Some interesting themes. But...they're not superhero themes. Like the one with the little girl who can use her powers once and only once in a futile child's plan to help her mother's life improve and regrets it for the rest of her life. It's not a bad story. But it's not a superhero story.

Many of the stories have miserable endings, which wouldn't be bad necessarily, but I got the impression (though to be fair I didn't go back and count) that they were the majority of the endings. Characters were dislikeable or sellouts. Self-absorbed or just annoying.

I suspect that many of these writers are straightforward fiction writers attempting to "subvert" the superhero concept for a clever themed fiction story. I think that a lot of them succeeded. But that's not what I was looking for. I wanted people who were altruistic and genuinely liked to and wanted to help other people. I wanted teamwork and friendship and strength of character. Essentially, I was looking for a celebration not a subversion of what superheroism means.

And honestly, I found some of the stories simply dull. But that's a problem I tend to have with short stories a lot. They need to grab me from the get go to catch and keep my interest. A novel is different. I can give a novel time to slowly build my interest, because I know that even if it takes 20 pages or so to get interesting, there's still about 300 pages left. But too many short stories only JUST manage to get interesting when woosh, done.

However, there were some stories in the book that I did truly think were absolute gems.

"Nate Pinckney-Alderson, Superhero" which stars a six-year old would-be superhero and his idolization of his jackass neighbor, a normal guy who had saved a baby, is adorable.

"Remains of the Night" succeeds, for me, where "Girl Reporter" fails. It's something of a subversion of the Batman-and-Alfred relationship in which the Batman-esque character is the downright grotesque Silverfish. It wins on a number of levels. First, there's something of an actual plot. Second, though not the viewpoint character, I get the impression that the Silverfish, though disgusting, is a man who likes to be a hero and help people. And in the end, the right characters got their just desserts.

"Pentecostal Home for Flying Children" isn't really a superhero story, I think. But the concept intrigued me and there were parts that genuinely made me laugh.

And finally I would totally read a comic book about either "the Meerkat" or "the Rememberer". Those were the stories that really evoked, for me, the fun of the superhero genre. The characters were fully realized and three-dimensional. I wanted to see what would happen to them. I wanted them to succeed and I felt regret when the story ended.

So that's pretty much my take on the book. If you're a fan of general fiction as well as superhero comics, I think you'll probably like the book. If you're like me and spent most of your English classes sneakily reading a Star Trek book carefully hidden under your desk, it might not be for you.


  • At August 24, 2008 6:46 AM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    If you haven't read it before, you should try Superheroes an older anthology edited by John Varley and Ricia Mainhardt. Some dark stories and some quirky ones. But lots of good ones...

  • At August 24, 2008 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Lurkerwithout got here before me, but I will second the recommendation. I still re-read that anthology. (Caveat: I really like genre short fiction.)

    Thank you for the review! I've been pondering whether or not to buy Who Can Save Us Now, and now I don't have to!

  • At August 24, 2008 2:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I've read Who Can Save Us Now, and while I would agree it's not for every taste (I liked it), here are a few positive reviews by reviewers who do love short stories -- just to be, you know, balanced (which I realize isn't the point of a blog, but...):

    New Yorker


    Buffalo News

  • At August 24, 2008 3:39 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    You're right. "Being fair and balanced" isn't the point of this blog. Moreover, it isn't the point of a review either.

    People looking for additional reviews of this book in order to make their judgment as fairly as possible are more than capable of using a search engine. One doesn't expect a newspaper review of a movie/book to have to display alternate opinions and nor should I have to in this blog.

    If you would like to agree or disagree with some point I've made with this review, you're welcome to do so. But please recall that the topic on hand is MY review of the book. No one else's.

  • At August 24, 2008 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    You yourself said you don't even like short your review is for, who, people who don't like short stories?

    Should the two commenters above not have recommended an alternative book, either, since you seem to want to control the content of the comments? Personally, I'm glad they did. I'd love to check it out.

    Why are you so defensive -- because someone who read your review thinks it's not all that helpful or, even, valid?

    BTW: It's not an uncommon phenomenon for commenters to leave links to other similiar stories for other readers of the blog to click on.

    I was trying to be civil in my comment above. Sorry I rubbed you the wrong way.

  • At August 24, 2008 4:55 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Actually the review was written for the people who sent me a free review copy of the book. :-) That generally means a review would be courteous, wouldn't you say?

    It's also for the members of my blog's audience who might be interested in the book and are here to read my thoughts about things. It is perhaps egotistical of me to expect the readers of my blog to be interested in my opinion about matters, but then it is rather the point of a blog.

    I don't have to justify myself to you but out of politeness I will point out the distinction between Lurker's comment and yours.

    Lurker's comment is a recommendation to me based on what he knows about my taste. YOU gave unsolicited links as an alternative to my post. Which is actually quite rude and not a part of "civil disagreement".

    An example of civil disagreement, because it appears as though you could use the lessons would be:

    "I disagree with your review. I didn't think that they were too interested in 'subverting' the genre. I particularly liked STORY A which you did not mention because it involved _________"

    Or possibly something like:

    "Actually, I think you're wrong about "Girl Reporter" because of ________. I agree with what the New York Times reviewer says in THIS LINK, when he explains the dynamic as...."

    Put simply: It would be polite to discuss your disagreement with ME, who is the host of this blog where you are commenting, or with the other people speaking on the thread. Presenting links as some sort of service to my readers, who are all more than capable of finding alternate reviews on their own initiative is disingenuous and disrespectful of me. Your subsequent reaction has done little to elevate my opinion of you.

    You can play the offended martyr all you want. It does not change the rudeness of your behavior. And if you cannot handle being called on your rudeness by your host, well then, you're more than welcome to go elsewhere.

  • At August 24, 2008 7:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sorry, but my first comment was civil and totally within the bounds of any reasonable discourse on a blog, especially one that offers an opinion on a subject (the short story) that the blogger claims not to even like or respect. Yes, your readers can do a Google search; but I still don't see why you're so histrionic over a few links that offer a differing point of view than yours. (Your readers are smart enough to ignore these links, if they so choose, or click on them and read them and, then, evaluate whether or not they're valid for their own purpose. It seems you're not giving your readers enough credit.) Not sure why you're so pissed off, though. Is it because the reviews in those links are written by people who do love the short story? Or is it because you're trying to emulate FOX News, where an alternative opinion isn't allowed for fear that readers may change their minds? I'd had no intention of being disrepectful of you until you felt compelled to tell me I was out of line, which I contend I wasn't. If you're so worried that my first comment had nothing to do with YOUR review, I beg to differ: It had EVERYTHING to do with YOUR review. I was just being subtle -- or polite, depending upon how you look at it.

  • At August 24, 2008 7:46 PM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    "I'm not the rude one! You're the rude one! And whaddya mean I can't eat the food in YOUR fridge. Its totally acceptable for me to eat stuff! Whats your problem!"

    I like the fights with Jimmy Sock-puppets better. Than you at least get weird non-sequitor insults directed at Ragnell...

    Actually for other recommendations for super-hero fic that ISN'T short stories, theres Soon I Will Be Invincible, Devil's Cape and Superpowers. I actually didn't like the last one, but thats mostly for the final act...

    Or you can hit the "Justice Wing" tag on my friend Eric's fiction blog Banter Latte...

  • At August 24, 2008 8:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible. I haven't read the others. Thanks for the recommendations, lurker.

  • At August 24, 2008 8:24 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    life in the margines: If you are so certain that you were polite, then why do you need to keep justifying yourself.

    Ultimately it doesn't matter if you think you were polite. Host rules win out. And I do have a comment policy for a reason. Consider it enacted.

    What this means is that if you want to continue to harp on how misfairly I've treated your first comment or otherwise discuss this issue, you may post it somewhere else. You may post a link here directing interested readers to that post, however anything additional from you on this post will be deleted at my convenience.

    Thank you and have a nice day.

    lurkerwithout: Thank you for the recommendations. :-)

  • At August 24, 2008 8:29 PM, Blogger Flidget Jerome said…

    I was about five seconds from going "wait, don't you have a comment policy in place for this sort of thing?".

    Anyway . . . I dunno. I have this dislike for when writers re-invent the wheel, especially writers coming from outside the genre who give the overall impression that they're so very pleased with themselves for their stunning insights. On that basis alone I've been staying clear of a lot of the recent superhero novels and story anthologies. I don't feel as if this will be an exception.

  • At August 24, 2008 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At August 24, 2008 8:45 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    As a PSA, according to my comment policy, I only delete comments AFTER I bring it up.

    If you wish to delete any comment prior to this. You can do so yourself.

  • At August 24, 2008 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It sounds like this book is similar to some other stuff I've seen over the years: Writers of True Lit'rature Slumming in "Genre Fiction".

    One of the hallmarks of this style is the lit'rary folks coming up with some "new twist on the genre" (a genre that they've basically never read, as it is Beneath Them), while not realizing that not only has the twist been done before, but done to death, by the actual genre writers.

  • At August 25, 2008 2:53 AM, Blogger Ununnilium said…

    Tangent: I don't really think there's actually a difference between "genre fiction" and "regular fiction", other than, well, genre. (And there are as many "regular" genres as there are "genre" genres.) Craftsmanship, subversion, subtext, deeper themes and meanings, all these appear in science fiction, fantasy, horror, superheroes, and the others in Genreland.

    Note, not trying to repudiate Kalinara's points, which I agree with overall; just going off on a semi-related path.

  • At August 25, 2008 3:17 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    :-) I actually don't disagree with you. It's one of the many reasons I think genre fiction is fantastic.

    I tend to think that for me, a lot of general fiction seems to focus on those things to the exclusion of being entertaining. That's the real crime. I'll read pretty much anything as long as it's not boring.

    Admittedly though, I'm very biased. And my Professor, while nice in other ways, did not go out of her way to endear me to the genre. :-)

  • At August 25, 2008 12:25 PM, Blogger Ununnilium said…

    Good point. It's often the "art for art's sake" problem.

  • At August 25, 2008 3:49 PM, Blogger Evan Waters said…

    "Anyway . . . I dunno. I have this dislike for when writers re-invent the wheel, especially writers coming from outside the genre who give the overall impression that they're so very pleased with themselves for their stunning insights"

    This is the same reason I have trouble with the "deconstructed fairy tale" genre. I read Robert Coover's STEPMOTHER a while back, and though Coover's a good writer, he doesn't really offer anything new- yes, the old fairy tales are sexist and enforce a rigid patriarchy, often with a fear of the outsider thrown in, yes, this was bad, etc. It's been done so often you can predict how things will be inverted.

  • At August 25, 2008 11:26 PM, Blogger Ununnilium said…

    Ugh, yes. I'm sorry, but I'm never going to read Wicked, just on things people liked about it.

  • At August 31, 2008 5:56 AM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    I'm now over 300 pages into this book. And it sucks. SUCKS SUCKS SUCKS SUCKS. The only story I've really LIKED so far is The Meerkat one. The Silverfish one is..interesting. But a bit too creepy and weird for me. I do like the illustrations for each story by Chris Burnham, but I would have been better off buying a copy of Nixon's Pals for that...


  • At September 14, 2008 8:07 PM, Blogger Rob Rogers said…

    Kalinara, I'd be interested in hearing what you think of my book Devil's Cape (and thanks, lurkerwithout, for mentioning it above).

    I haven't read Who Can Save Us Now yet, but plan to get around to it eventually, but I suspect I'll have some of the same reactions to it. I've got kind of a jaded attitude to people who take too satirical an approach to superheroes. I mean, it's fine and all, but that's not the kind of story I want to read, especially when it seems to be poking fun at people who do love superheroes and comics.

    Anyway, Devil's Cape isn't tongue in check at all; if anything, it's a kind of tribute to the types of stories (superheroes, crime thrillers, etc.) that I like to read.

    If you'd like a review copy, let me know.

  • At September 14, 2008 11:12 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I think I'd like to read it. If you drop me a line at, we can hammer out details. :-)


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