Or why you should read Turbulence
By Samit Basu
As a person who enjoys superhero comics and also enjoys reading novels, the idea of a novel about superheroes is pretty attractive. It's one of my favourite genres explored using one of my favourite media; media that has a considerably different set of tools to explore the themes, tropes, and stories of the genre. The trouble is, a lot of superhero prose novels are pretty crumby. Many of them are tie in novels of established properties or are done with the objective of being serviceable cash-ins on the presumed popularity of superheroes. I feel like the quality and originality often isn't there. More merchandizing than literature. (To be fair, I haven't read a tremendously large sample size of this genre due to poor experiences... but it's what I've noticed). The few superhero inspired novels that I have enjoyed tend to either be more about them as a phenomenon (Kavalier and Clay) or take a very meta, very self-aware approach to the genre (Soon I Will Be Invincible). But, properly good, literature that are also superhero fiction are thin on the ground.
Turbulence by Samit Basu is a straight forward superhero novel that is the well written, exciting, and literate superhero prose novel I've been craving.
The premise of the novel is that a number of largely Indian and British nationals, on a flight from London to Delhi, inexplicably find themselves possessed of supernatural abilities. The mysterious powers are diverse and seem to be somehow connected to the wishes and desires of those affected. Aman Sen, a young Indian who wishes for more human connectedness is able to control information technology with his mind. Vir, an indian fighter pilot finds himself able to fly and nigh invulnerable. Uzma, who has dreams of being a Bollywood movie star, becomes irresistibly charismatic. Jai, a fanatical Indian soldier becomes the perfect weapon, powerful and indestructible. These new superhumans must decide what their powers are for and struggle to determine who will rule the future. But first some punching.
From a pure I-like-superhero-fiction perspective Turbulence is pretty much perfect. The story is filled with action and imagination, wonderfully relatable and charismatic characters, and plays with many of my favourite genre tropes. Critically it also doesn't take itself too seriously: superheroes are meant to be fun and are inherently a bit goofy. The fact that Turbulence is willing to have fun with itself is deeply appreciated. From a purely surface level angle, Turbulence is a very enjoyable read.
Turbulence is also pretty interesting from a cultural standpoint. Superheroes are as American as apple pie in that both are tied to America, but also enjoyed pretty much everywhere else. But, as an english speaker, superheroes are for me, very much tied up with certain cultural ideals of the United States (and keep in mind folks, I'm Canadian.) Turbulence is a classic superhero tale starring Indians and taking place largely within India. Which is a great lampoon of the America-centric nature of mainstream superherodom (statistically the super people are more likely to originate in more populous countries after all) and just interesting. The way Turbulence uses the super familiar machinery of a superhero story as a lens to examine India and Indian culture and the dreams of Indian people is fascinating. The tension between Turbulence and it's Indian superheroes and mainstream comics and their American heroes, how the two mythos overlap and differ, I think is an interesting discussion. Turbulence is a great book from the perspective of a cultural guide that uses something familiar to teach us about something outside our experience. It's great.
Honestly, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes superhero comics and movies. It's accessible, very well written, and interesting both as a straightforward action story and as a work of cross-cultural literature. It isn't examining the history of cape comics or trying to dissect the genre in a self aware way like other books I would recommend, but it's interesting and a blast to read. If you read this blog, there is a high likelihood you should try it.