The Short Version: Lester Ferris, a British sergeant coming up on 40, has landed a post on the island of Mancreu. Formerly a British territory, it now occupies a sort of legal netherworld – complete with pirate fleet off the coast – before it’s to be wiped away entirely due to some nasty environmental juju brewing underneath the surface. Lester’s job is to hang out until the full evacuation is ordered – but he grows to love the island and takes a scrappy street kid under his wing. As the last days of the island draw near and violence begins to tear the place apart, though, he’ll need to step off the sidelines and become something more than himself – a hero, maybe even a super one.
The Review: Well this ought to do it. Anybody who doesn’t think Nick Harkaway is not only one of the most inventive but most versatile authors working today, you’re quite simply wrong. The Gone-Away World was a rambunctious sci-fi perpetual motion machine, Angelmaker a dizzying update/take-off of spy novels – and while Tigerman has less of the kitchen-sink invention than either of the two previous novels, it provides a perfect 21st Century version of a superhero origin story. It might be his most human, most down-to-earth novel – and that’s not a bad thing, not at all.
This is not to say that there aren’t splashes of that crazy imagination leaking through: the Dispersal Clouds brewed in the island’s volcano – crazy unexpected combinations of Mother Earth’s might and humanity’s idiocy – are a sort of fantasist’s environmental disaster. Example: one of them causes everybody to get a little randy and for the kids of that particular coupling to all be born without Broca’s area, the part of the brain responsible for language. (Perhaps the scientists researching the Silent Epidemic should check Mancreu.) Another causes all the flowers to go into bloom. And Harkaway brings this sort of neon electric wash to even the human parts of the tale, the ones that keep this book rooted so much further in reality than his previous flights of fancy. Lester and Jed and the boy and Inoue and all of the characters feel not so much stock as they do like vivid explosions of real, only more-so. Yes, they all fit certain stereotypes that befit the superhero genre (that is, after all, often one of the points of writing a book within a certain genre – to fit the mold) but none of them feels terribly weak because of that reliance. Instead, you’re able to say “ah, yes, right, the sexy scientist” and “oh, quite quite, the blustering, wisecracking American.” Lester Ferris is absolutely the sort of person who could convincingly don a superhero costume – but he’s no less three-dimensional for it.
As for the superhero aspect: this, much like (for example) Batman Begins or Batman: Year One – the easiest analogue, probably, as our hero (while quite ‘super’) is not Super – is an origin story. The reader doesn’t see Tigerman until past the halfway point and even then he isn’t a concrete entity yet. Lester continues to grapple with the concept of Tigerman – not necessarily in the way that modern city dwellers might grapple with a vigilante, it’s not that issue of vigilanteism at all actually – well into the final excitement. But to some extent that’s the point: we’re meant to watch Lester grappling not with Tigerman but with his feelings for this surrogate son and this surrogate home. A solider’s soldier, a man possessed of combat-ready gifts but coming to the end of his usefulness (Lester could never be a high-level flunky – he’s a man meant to be out there; even this Brevet-Consul gig feels a touch cushy for him), he doesn’t know how to be anything else – and while Tigerman is another thing for him to be, it is also an opportunity for him to grow. It is a tool that might take him to the place he needs/wants to be next.
Of course, nothing is ever that easy, is it?
The unexpected second success of this novel – after the rip-roaring superhero adventure part, which (if I didn’t already say) is an unqualified success – is the geopolitical one. It’s such a strange world these days, nearly 25 years after the Wall fell and with the kids born after the Towers fell about to become teenagers. And Harkaway sees that, but is also both old enough and smart enough to recognize that things don’t change like *that*. There are still little places in the world like Mancreu, these leftovers from a time and mindset that are simply incompatible with the modern world – but that are, as a result, used to facilitate things that also stand out as slightly incompatible with our modern world, in different ways. The Black Fleet is such a splendid example of how we, as an overall society of human beings, are willing to overlook things right in front of us because we believe that it’s better that we don’t know. And when things really start heating up on Mancreu, of course the media descend within moments – and not the old incompetent media either, but the media of today that understands (even slightly, anyway) the power of the internet. Of YouTube. We’re all watching the Middle East tear itself apart down fiber-optic lines, watching eastern Europe tiptoe towards all-out war down the stream of a Twitter feed – so of course Mancreu is the sort of place we would avoid looking at… until it became too good not to look at. Harkaway sees it, how we want to have it both ways – and that goes for his characters and their desires too.
On that note, I’ll say little more – except that the ending, while of course predictable based on even a cursory “I’ve seen superhero movies” understanding of the genre, cuts even harder for its indictment of our modern society. Because I only realize now, having let the ending stew a little, that that’s exactly what it does: it shows how it’s often not an individual who creates a hero or a villain but how we, collectively, create those stories… or convince the rare, one-in-a-billion individuals that those stories are meant to be created.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Harkaway’s style continues to dazzle – it has panache, brio, and mostly just a huge sense of fun. Here’s an author who continues to create on a grand imaginative scale but while retaining the human element. He doesn’t go all in for sci or spy or fantasy or any of those things but rather he works them, even in their most outlandish modes, into something altogether real. It’s a marvelous skill and Tigerman shows him outstrip even his earlier successes. It is a bright, charging book well worth your time (as are his previous).
(ed. note: if you can get the UK hardcover, do so. The orange/white/black design is potent and grin-inducing every time I see it. The US cover I saw at The Strand today and, while fun and pulpy, it just doesn’t have the same joy to it.)