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Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

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Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. An Army brat, Lois has lived all over—and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Fly straight.

As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won’t be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They’re messing with her mind, somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it’s all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, a guy she knows only by his screenname, SmallvilleGuy…
~~~~~
Tie-in fiction is often regarded as somehow “lesser” than original fiction, and criticised as being “less imaginative” or “easier to write” than that which has to establish its own universe (although these criticisms aren’t levelled at mimetic fiction, which also doesn’t have to create its own world?); as such, tie-in writers have in the past been seen as second-rank. With luminaries and critically acclaimed authors like Tobias Buckell, Karen Traviss, Greg Bear and John Shirley writing tie-in novels (all for the Halo series), that perception is changing, and Gwenda Bond’s Lois Lane: Fallout should be stacked up with those novels in demonstrating why tie-in fiction can be just as good as original-world novels.

Lois Lane: Fallout is a true Lois Lane tale; unlike many of those told in comics, Superman doesn’t feature (well, not quite), and this isn’t told in the cracks around a Superman story. Instead, Bond sets her story at a Metropolis high school, with Lois as a student attending the school; she finds ways to tie into the traditional elements of a Lois Lane story – the Daily Planet, Perry White, conflicts with her father General Lane, and of course investigative journalism that annoys the authorities – while never losing sight of the constraints she has placed herself, and her protagonist, under by making her a high school student rather than an independent adult. A consistent threat in Fallout comes from within her own family, as Lois’ disruptive presence at schools (a feature that feels reminiscent of early Buffy) leads her father, General Lane, to want to send her to a military academy.

The story is one of the military-industrial complex and how it is insinuating itself into education and into gaming culture. That might sound like both a dry subject and old hat, and indeed it has been told before in the DCU, but Bond isn’t interested in talking about America’s Army is a recruitment tool for the military or how schools are used by the military to normalise specific kinds of violence; instead, she’s interested more in military experimentation on people without proper consent, and problematic studies that cross lines between the military and education. Lois Lane: Fallout is set in a kind of cyberpunk world with virtual reality headsets and a degree of interactivity that modern gaming still doesn’t allow, and from that she has created a world where the military might exploit that in ways reminiscent of Ender’s Game; the unwitting use of children for military purposes and the idea of gaming as an analogue to, and mask for, actual warfare are both points of interest which Bond engages with in the novel, and shows Lois herself troubled by.

But this isn’t just a political novel with a dry message to send; actually, it’s not that at all. At its core, this is a high school story combined with an origin story; hence, Lois Lane: Fallout sets the stage for the Lanes to conflict over the proper use of the military, especially in an age of extraordinary individuals (the DEO doesn’t come up by name but at least a precursor organisation clearly exists) and also sets the stage for Lois to become Perry White’s star reporter at the Daily Planet, recruited straight from school thanks to exposes on the youth section of the website. It’s engaged with the changing world of the 21st Century well in that regard; Perry is worried about the newspaper dying, and thinks this online experiment will at best prolong that death, while Lois is still deeply passionate and a believer in curated news sources and trusted news organisations in a way Perry no longer can be.

It’s also, as mentioned, a high school story; Bond gives us the expected cliqueyness of American high school fiction, and turns it into something more sinister over the course of the novel, as Lois Lane: Fallout engages with ideas of groupthink, peer pressure and ostracism in literalised ways that provide metaphors for everyday experiences in the way science fiction is so often said to do; Bond is also incredibly sympathetic to her teenage cast, never treating them as stupid or immature simply because of their age, but rather giving them agency, independence and a fierce sense of individuality not yet blunted by maturity, making them read much more like real teenagers than many authors accomplish.

Occasionally, the novel can feel a little light, and its characters descend at times into tropes – the gamer crowd are social misfits who wear all-black, there’s the preppy rich kid who is actually not as rich as he seems so puts on a front which makes him unlikeable, there’s the mean headmaster who just gets in the way, et cetera; and Lois Lane: Fallout treats its themes a little simplistically, with a generally anti-authority, anti-industrial message that could do with being better thought out and more rounded than the simplistic teen rebellion it at times comes across as, but these are failure modes of good YA, rather than being alien to the genre or feeling intrusive, rather than simply a bit of a let down.

Lois Lane: Fallout may not be the best superhero story out there; after all, it’s not really a superhero story. But it is a fantastic tale told using the trappings of the DCU, and a wonderful exploration of an oft-maligned character. I recommend it.


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