A British Airways flight from London to Delhi encounters some turbulence in flight. When the passengers disembark, they discover that they have acquired strange powers. Programmer Aman Sen has become the ultimate cyberpunk hero — his brain is wired to the Internet, and he can hack into any system with ease. Wannabe actress Uzma Abidi is suddenly the toast of Bollywood — every director wants her in his movie, despite the fact that she’s a Muslim of English-Pakistani birth. Fighter pilot Vir Singh no longer needs his plane to fly. He has other powers too, things previously reserved solely for mild-mannered American journalists with parents from Krypton. Homo superior has arrived on Earth, and they have done so in India.
This is the set-up for a very different novel published in the UK by Titan Books. The author is Samit Basu, whom you won’t be surprised to learn lives in Delhi. I’ve been in touch with him on and off since Emerald City days, and I’m delighted to see him finally have a novel out here. I’m also delighted that it is so much fun.
Like any right-thinking person bitten by a radioactive spider, Aman, Uzma and Vir only want to use their powers for the good of mankind. However, not all of their fellow passengers share their altruism. Vir’s boss, Jai Mathur, was also on the flight. He’s a patriotic soldier who foresees a new era of imperial glory for India. He wants to establish an elite corps of super soldiers, and his first mission for Vir is an attack on a Pakistani nuclear missile base, an act pretty much certain to lead to war.
It doesn’t take long for the scenario to turn into a classic, X-Men style battle of heroes against villains. That’s even down to the level of Jai and his team having plenty of good arguments on their side. And then there’s the mystery power. Out there somewhere is a real super villain, someone who uses his abilities only for evil. Both sides want him out of the way, but can they join forces, even briefly?
If you don’t like superheroes this book is not going to be for you. If, on the other hand, you grew up reading X-Men and Avengers like I did then you will be impressed with Basu’s command of the genre. (And don’t take my word for it, Mike Carey has given the book an enthusiastic blurb.) There are probably no new super powers to be invented these days, but Basu does a fine job creating characters. I particularly love Princess Anima, the schoolgirl who acquires real magical girl powers, complete with weird weapons and great big eyes. There’s a lot of humor in the book.
There’s also a lot of India. As the heroes are Indian, some of them have very Indian powers, including a washed-up former cricketer who suddenly becomes the world’s best batsman. This may just have been an excuse for Basu to poke fun at the Indian Premier League, but I appreciated it all the same. Indian cultural and political concerns also inform the novel in a way they never could have done had the author not lived in the country for most of his life. Furthermore, while India is becoming vaguely aware of California as a rival source of movies and software, there’s no way any self-respecting Indian super powered battle would trash New York. No sir, when Basu’s heroes and villains decide to slug it out, there’s only one place for them to do so: London.
I should point out that this is not Basu’s first novel. He has four books out from Penguin India. He has written comics too. Turbulence is a confident, well structured novel. If it were not so very Indian I’m pretty sure it could have sold to the US. As it is, concerns about how well it will play to the local audience will doubtless hamper international sales. You people, however, are better than that. If you want something interesting and different, and you are not allergic to superheroes, please give Turbulence a try.
Update: I have been informed that Titan will be bringing out a US edition next year. Good for them!
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