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Absolute Power

Style: Weak → Average

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Unobjectionable

In Brief: Comic-book style superhero action; mind-control; the morality of military action; morality of prison conditions; human cloning.

Cover of Absolute Power

Author: Michael Carroll

Series: The New Heroes

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published in: 2007

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Near Future

Setting: USA

Genres:  SciFiThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Colin, a superpowered teenager repelled by the responsibility forced upon him, has fled the group. Even then, though, he has to make life-and-death decisions for many people.
  • Super-fast Danny is Colin's best friend who has to face up to a vision he had of himself facing a terrible war wearing with a mechanical arm.
  • Renata, strong and capable of turning to impregnable crystal, has managed to control her power more discriminately, but realises that each transformation takes its toll on her.
  • Yvonne and her sister Mina were cloned by Ragnarok, responsible for the attack on the superheroes 10 years ago. Yvonne uses her formidable mind-control power for her own ends, including forcing Colin to attack the other New Heroes and keeping her sister in a coma until her own powers are needed.

Synopsis:

The New Heroes, second-generation superpowered youngsters, have to make difficult decisions when their leader Colin runs away and they are under political attack from the worldwide Trutopian organisation led, unknown to them, by their enemy Victor Cross and the mind-controlling Yvonne. Victor and Yvonne are ahead of the game nearly all the way and manipulate the New Heroes into a series of actions which will give them, the Trutopians, the excuse to declare war on the world. Yvonne, meanwhile, is also controlling Colin, most powerful of the New Heroes, although he is able to resist her orders to kill people.

Notes:

There's a surprising amount of meat on this bone even though at a certain level it's still the textual equivalent of a Young X-Men comic book. So you have the discovery of the various powers of each character, good and bad, and the trumping of each one by a different character's power. In this one, Colin is super-everything so we trump him with the mind-controlling Yvonne who sets him against his comrades. She, in turn, is only trumped by Renata — mysteriously immune to her control — who has to take drastic action to protect the world from the consequences of Yvonne's megalomania. (Yvonne's 14, remember). But then, lest Renata be more powerful than everyone else, there has to be a trade-off there. And so on. The action scenes — and there are quite a few — are at their best when there's some ingenuity involved rather than the more predictable speed vs strength standoffs between the controlled Colin and his best friend Danny.

Sadly, the youngsters don't rise too far above the 2-dimensional. Bas-relief at best. (I still struggle to remember which is which when Danny & Colin are fighting each other). Renata's a Latino American, Butler is from an American military academy, Danny & Colin are English and Yvonne and Mina were cloned from who knows what DNA and have grown up who knows where. Yet they're pretty much interchangeable barring their obvious differences of superpower.

But aside from the shallowness of the plot and the characters, the issues it throws up are at least worth a discussion or two. If this series does no more than bring up some issues it will at least have done something. Of course, bringing an issue to light is one thing; dealing intelligently with its consequences is quite another, and I'm not convinced that The New Heroes really brings this off. But what have we got to chew on?

To start with there's an interesting and mostly unresolved tension between two moral imperatives. Early in the book, a youngster who turns two school bullies against each other by stealing from both is told that the end doesn't justify the means, that you can't perform an evil act even to achieve a good end. The more prevalent philosophy, however, on both sides of the fence is that it is better to do something than nothing. A Trutopian press statement explicitly quotes Burke: “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing”. Now these two are not necessarily in opposition. Certainly, apathy and indifference among good people will do no harm to the cause of evil. However in every case here, doing something amounts to to taking the law into your own hands, overriding what you perceive as the corruption or impotence of the appointed forces of law and order. Stephanie helps the unskilled Grant to become a vigilante; Danny defies Military and Political leaders and leads the Young Heroes against the prison-mine of Lieberstan; and the Trutopians, led by Yvonne, claim that their moral high ground entitles them to destroy the world. Fortunately, although the first prerogative is never referred to explicitly, it's (just) present in Danny's resistance to Yvonne's control when it involves killing and in the general condemnation of the treatment of the prisoners in Lieberstan.

Which brings us to the issue of the prison-mine of Lieberstan. Assuming there's no misinformation, it seems clear enough that, faced with a set of powerless supervillains, the powers-that-be shipped them — and their families — off to an Eastern European platinum mine for the rest of their lives, paying the country in question over the odds for their platinum in exchange for complicity. Conditions are horrendous and beyond any kind of international agreements. Colin is told that the government were unaware, but we're not sure how much we're supposed to believe. While the existence of this prison is one of the more straightforwardly immoral aspects of the book, the action Colin and the others take to oppose it and the consequences for the world are more complex, amounting to dangerous imprudence at best. Ultimately the New Heroes find their hot-headed reaction to this travesty gives the Trutopians the excuse they need to declare war on the world.

The Trutopians are not so very far away from some people's desires nowadays: a series of gated communities started by a benign visionary and later hijacked by two far more malign minds. The communities have their own laws and appear to be peaceful and humane. There's no suggestion here of a cult or brainwashing although many people feel there's something faintly sinister about their approach. Ultimately, though, they represent such a force in the world that Yvonne is able to use them to start a war against the rest of the world. Now Yvonne is a cynical manipulator who openly abuses her considerable power to further the world she believes should be. Yet she would not have been in that position if the Trutopians hadn't gone part of the way there already. Her creed is clearly wrong: destroy the imperfect world to build the perfect one. Yet the Trutopian ideal is equally flawed, as they attempt to eliminate the messiness of the human condition by shutting out those who do not meet their rigorous standards.

Yvonne's leadership of the Trutopians is just one of a series of actions she takes to manipulate events via her mind control. She makes for a great villain but, as with several of the other characters, it's hard to believe her supposed age of 14. She's just too vicious and too scheming, too good at what she does. But then, you get chess grandmasters (grandmistresses?) at that age and younger so maybe young children can learn strategy and tactics as well as Yvonne. And, in fact, her plan does ultimately fail but it comes close. The more interesting question is: how does Yvonne control minds, and how far does that control go? She needs people to hear her voice, but a telephone or television is sufficient. The control is, in most cases, absolute, but fails entirely in a very few cases, and Danny — uniquely — can resist her commands to kill although he has to obey her in everything else. A tricky number in its interaction with the idea of free will and the extent to which we can be forced to do things we don't want to. (See the Jimmy Coates series for a different treatment of the subject).

Yvonne has a much greater degree of control over her sister because, Mina explains, they're clones (of a third party, presumably). And yet they don't share the same powers. Which rather puts paid to the idea of a simply genetic basis for superpowers. In addition to Mina & Yvonne, we learn that Victor Cross is developing a set of clones for unknown purposes. But there's no explicit commentary, moral or otherwise, on the question of cloning. Obviously there's the implicit suggestion that, since the only clones are created by manifestly bad characters, the idea is somehow undesirable, there's no discussion on the matter and it's simply accepted as a commonplace. Which I think is a shame.

So a number of issues are raised in the book, but none is really resolved. True, on the one hand, this series is not interested in exploring moralities as such but rather invoking them as more interesting backdrops to an otherwise straightforward action thriller. On the other, though, even if it did want to explore, there is no one character in the books who has the authority, the stature to present a moral truth to all the others. None of the youngsters has the wisdom (and we recognise the falseness of Yvonne's histrionic appeal to the moral high ground). None of their parents can offer more than commonplace parental appeals. The Military are at best tolerated and at worst despised. Solomon Cord was the closest thing to a moral character and he's no longer around. So if this series wants to go somewhere interesting with the issues is raises, it needs to bring forward someone who can give some answers.

Themes:

  • Military action: who knows what's right and what's wrong?
  • Mind control: just how much can we be made to do?
  • Trutopia: can you destroy an imperfect world to build a perfect one?
  • What do they do with the bad guys once they've caught them?

Grant began to recite Yvonne's words: “The governments of the United States of America, Brazil, Germany... something... and Poland have all declared their intentions to invade Trutopian territory. We will not allow this to happen. I have a message to all the Trutopians listening. You all understand that what we're building here is a utopia, a perfect world. But it's not logical to build a perfect world on imperfect foundations. The old world has to be destroyed before the new one can begin.” He turned to Stephanie. “My God...!”

Stephanie pointed to the TV set. “She's not finished!”

Grant continued: “Something... didn't get that... Now it's time to stop talking about peace, and start making it happen. Some people say that fighting for peace doesn't make a lot of sense... They're wrong. It makes perfect sense. You will fight and kill anyone who is not a Trutopian. You will keep fighting until we are triumphant.”

Yvonne simply turned and walked away. The camera panned to a shocked-looking reporter.

Monday 27th August 2007