All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault
by James Alan Gardner
Cover Artist: Getty Images
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765392633
Date: 07 November 2017 List Price $17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /
I was totally sucked in by the cover of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault and even though it's not the sort of story I'd seek out, I have no regrets. It's a fun romp through a mashup of urban fantasy and superhero myth which provides commentary on both genres and the world at large while not losing sight of the plot or its sense of humor. I shy away from both fantasy and superhero books because it annoys my hard SF side but Gardner has taken all the improbabilities that normally bug me and made them work, if only in the framework of the novel. Also, he's got a character that's as annoyed at cartoon physics as I am, so I don't feel so alone.
The core characters in this novel are four college students who get exposed to superpower inducing stuff in the usual setting, a lab explosion. They're not the first superheroes in this reality, not by a long shot, but they're the first in the Canadian city of Waterloo, where the action takes place. There's a lot of yin/yang in this book, so along with superheroes, or "Sparks", as they're called here, there are magically enabled humans who have sold their souls for immortality and whatever powers the darker side of the universe sees fit to grant. Though Sparks and Darklings are powered by mutually exclusive spheres, they share a common feature of transformation: your empowered self reflects your old self, writ large.
Our viewpoint character Kim is an Asian American getting distance from her tiger-mom, hoping to be a world-class geologist (like her dad), and pining for her ex-boyfriend, who went for his conversion to the darkness when he reached maturity. Not like she didn't know that was coming because he came from a Darkling family and it's just not something you'd walk away from. Superpowers come to you by accident, but anyone can go Dark if they're rich and connected. Darklings run all the tech giants, the governments, basically, all the one-percenters, while Sparks come from the common folk, or at least don't have a fee to get in. Sparks are the stuff of predestination, and Darklings are the result of the sort of success that requires a sort of Ayn Rand perspective and lots of cash.
In the cases of Mariana, Jools, Shar, and Kim, becoming a Spark is a matter of being in the wrong place at the right time, caught in the fringes of an experiment to see if Darklings could add superpowers to their magical ones. As this is the origin story, a lot of the fun is in watching them decide to step up to the role, develop their identities (and costumes), and come together as a team.
Kim, our viewpoint character, is identifying as gender-neutral, and since going either light or dark makes you more of what you are, it's fun to see how her Spark identity deals with that. Her pal Jools, on the other hand, is just hoping that her Spark persona looks hot. This from a hockey-obsessed gal who suddenly gets the ability to access all expert knowledge and channel peak human performance.
It looks like each book in the series (there's an excerpt of the next book at the end) will make a different team member the viewpoint character, this book's being Kim and the next her hockey-obsessed pal. I like the idea of being able to develop each member, but keeping the group dynamic as a touchstone.
One of the more interesting topics in physics and philosophy is whether or not we're living in a digital universe–essentially whether or not we're game characters. A nice discussion of this can be found over at Scientific American Scientific American, but reading All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, I got the same feeling. Do cartoon physics and magic make sense? Are the rules of the universe being made up as the story goes along? As Miranda, the skeptical physics student says:
"Oh, I get it. We've switched from the real world to Dungeons and Dragons. Fine! But I don't have to like it."
Gardner's characters offer some interesting insights into the nature of dark and light, good and evil. Here's Lilith on the difference between Darklings and Superheroes (I've edited out the back and forth):
"The Dark and the Light are enemies. Order and Chaos. The Dark embody order. Organizers, leaders ... Sparks, on the other hand, are nobodies. They didn't get their powers through accomplishments and character. They just won the lottery, and they didn't even buy a ticket. Is that fair?”
Really, she's got a point, though I suspect that the author would say that there's more to it than that. A large percentage of Sparks accept the task of combating evil, though a few (and therein lies the story) go supervillain, or justify their actions beyond conventional comeuppance.
Good science fiction combines entertainment and mind-expansion or at least offers some critical comments on the impact of technology on society. That's the genre that James Alan Gardner comes out of, with numerous books in his League of Peoples series, in which an advanced alien civilization pulls the strings on lesser (e.g. human) races. The same combination occurs here, and it won't surprise me if we find out that the Light and Dark are expressions of hyper-powerful others pulling the strings here as well.
A series needs characters that keep you coming back for more, and that's exactly what All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault delivers. The next story belongs to Jools, in some ways a more conventional hero than Kim, but with a different set of demons to exorcise. I'm looking forward to seeing how both these characters and their universe develop.