3 out of 5
Notable as the supposed – but not confirmed – inspiration for Superman, Philip Wylie’s 1930s novel suffers from some shortsightedness and a sparingly applied sense of “science” to its fiction, but it definitely applies the super-powered human concept to interestingly bleak ends that could be said to have been echoed by plenty of writers who followed in Siegel’s and Shuster’s steps. Whether Gladiator is actually a reference or just what came first, who knows, but all the comic history aside, it stands on its own.
Scientist Abednego Danner defies his pestering wife – women given quite the simple-minded treatment in the book from a man who promoted “momism” (the potential misogyny of which is a separate debate) – by injecting their to-be child with a serum he’d previously tested on, why not, a cat, which had given it proportionate strength of insects such as grasshoppers. This was Danner’s main scientific conjecture: that tapping in to the secrets of these mini monstrosities would unleash man’s (fie, not woman’s!) whole potential. The cat goes cray-cray, but that’s not enough to deter Danner, and then Hugo is born, and soon enough, he’s kept in a metal cage for his own protection. The experiment is a success.
Despite my sarcasm, the beginning of the tale is where the science is foremost: Wylie takes pains to describe the scientific method, and to make it clear that this was something arrived at after much trying and failing. The step-by-step understanding of Hugo’s abilities (which are not the laser eyes and flying of Superman, rather just extreme strength and endurance) follow a similar presentation, which makes Hugo’s realization – after some minor incidents – that his abilities wouldn’t be praised by people, but rather feared or even hated very effective: we’ve been walked through the process, the build-up, and the let down. Wylie sets forth a clear agenda that holds over for the remaining novel: man is a narrow-minded punter; humanity hates differences. Not that these sentiments aren’t very true at points, but the lack of nuance as to how he applies it limits his story’s impact.
Thereafter, the book is chopped up into snapshots from Hugo’s life: college, the war, a job. In each section, he hides his powers until circumstance demands otherwise, then he either convinces himself that life holds no challenge for him and so he sucks, or he gets chased out of town. The former lends itself to some strong insights, but Wylie cuts out before really fleshing it out. And the science is gone: Danner effects his abilities without any consideration for physics, like Wylie just figured out some mumbo jumbo as to how this came about, then didn’t care about justifying how it was applied. These elements combine for a novel that never feels like it fully gets going; Wylie writes in a very reserved, uptight manner, and so does his narrative play out: well told, but holding back.