Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask by Jim Munroe

New York, Avon Spike, 1999, $12.50
in New York Review of Science Fiction 139, March 2000

This novel manages something I would have thought was impossible: it puts people with super powers into a well-realised contemporary setting, and makes the whole thing seem banal.

It is set in the sort of Bohemian society that surrounds Toronto university, and I think what Munroe really wanted to write was a hip, young urban novel about student life (at least, thatís how it is described in the blurb). But hip young urban novels are two a penny these days, so he dressed it up with these wild and wacky super powers. Only I donít think he believes a word of it, and I donít think he expects us to believe a word of it. So weíre left with a hip young urban novel with baroque dressings.

Now Munroe himself, apparently, is hip and young and lives in Toronto, so we can presume he knows something of the student society heís describing. In which case I can only assume that Toronto is stuck in some sort of time warp, since his bright young things seem to have only just discovered punk rock and the biggest issue that excites their hip young urban angst is smoking marijuana.

Our guide to this society is Ryan, a student who can turn into a fly. He can do this whenever he wishes and without any real effort, and the only consequence is that when he turns back into a human being he is naked and covered in some sort of green gunge. He has known he could turn into a fly since he was a child but is embarrassed by the secret, and most of his time is devoted to hiding his virgin status from his slobby flatmates and worrying about his mother who is dying of cancer. Then he meets Cassandra who was in a punk band but is now a waitress and she quickly tells him that she was once kidnapped and impregnated by aliens, oh and by the way she has the ability to make things disappear.

The perennial tale of a gauche virgin trying to get his end away is sweet, timeless and unoriginal, and still about the best thing in the book. When the pair decide to form themselves into a new league of super heroes, however, the novel looses any real sense of direction it ever had. Their targets are predictably PC, but their methods are both cack-handed and curiously ill-conceived. It doesnít take super powers to deface a poster for the cigarette company that gave Ryanís mum cancer, and when their attack has no effect whatsoever they do nothing else, the evils of cigarette companies are quietly forgotten. They attack a right-wing newspaper by making all its dispensers around the city disappear in one night and then again do nothing further. During a student demo they disappear the guns of all the police who are guarding the route of the march, but since there was never any suggestion that the police might actually use those guns the exercise seems pointless. None of their escapades seems to have any effect on the wider world, this is at best dilettante crime fighting flitting lightly from one fashionable cause to another without ever alighting long enough to even make a point. At the end they rescue a comics artist who has been arrested for smoking pot. The rescue is daring and the best use of their powers in the novel, but the situation has been engineered so heavy-handedly that it doesnít really seem to make sense.

I suspect that Munroe gave Ryan the ability to turn into a fly before he sat down to work out how such a power might be used or even might fit sensibly into the novel he was writing. There is no indication that Munroe has given the slightest thought to how a contemporary society might react to the sudden display of super powers, and he doesnít have the first idea how to end his story. Itís goofy, itís comic, at times it is quite endearing, but somehow it just doesnít manage to do anything with what would appear to be quite promising material.