Today’s Book: “The Timematician: A Gen M Novel” by Steven Bereznai
The Plot: Doctor BetterThan, a genius supervillain who can manipulate time, uses his powers to wipe out all life on earth. Then he has to deal with the consequences – including a mysterious robot woman who seems determined to undo his work.
Autistic Character(s): Doctor BetterThan himself – and the author.
I find that I struggle to review comedies. I’ve done it before (see, for example, “The Damned Busters“) but it always throws me off my game. Normally we don’t want autistic traits to be exaggerated and played for laughs. So what happens in a genre where everything is exaggerated and played for laughs? You have to just suspend your disbelief and go with it.
“The Timematician” is not only a comedy about an autistic person – it’s about an autistic villain, who’s not only played for laughs but is also manifestly a terrible person. Obviously I don’t mind autistic villains or unlikeable characters – I’ve written them myself – but as a reviewer it introduces an additional level of wow-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this-book.
What I’m saying is that I picked up “The Timematician” feeling curious, but very dubious and unsure if it would ever win me over.
To my surprise, it mostly did.
It helps that Bereznai’s narrative voice is really engaging. Picture the most gleefully cheesy supervillain monologue you’ve ever heard, and that’s your narrator. Everything feels brightly-colored, vivid and quick-moving in the best comic book tradition.
Doctor BetterThan’s autism informs his character deeply (he also has a physical disability). It influences the devices he’s created, including a “social-ometer” that helps him to decode neurotypical characters’ intentions. It also, even more interestingly, affects his style of villainy:
Growing up, I thought that throwing in bits of fancy talk would give me a rougish quality my classmates would ooh and aah over. As with the application of many skills in the spheres of adolescent sociability, I miscalculated. No one understood me or even tried – which prepared me well for adulthood.
“The fools of this world had no use for me,” I say aloud, “well, the feeling is mutual.”
Genetrix bleeps in a womp-womp way.
“Genetrix,” I chide, “sarcasm is the refuge of the inferior.”
I know she’s being sarcastic – a deplorable and cruel form of irony that’s somehow crept into her code – because an inverted question mark pluses on her face. Genetrix bleeps in response.
“Well, people should like know-it-alls,” I answer, “because we know it all.”
The genius villain who feels that no one appreciates their genius is not a new trope; it’s a staple of superhero fiction, and it’s probably always autistic-coded (or at least non-neurotypical-coded) to a degree. But Bereznai brings that connection to the foreground and, by doing so, arguably makes it more interesting. There were a lot of points in the book where I had to stop and think – not because autism changes any of the ethical considerations of being a supervillain, but simply because I recognized the type of person Doctor BetterThan is. We’ve all known autistic people, men in particular, who respond to the pain of ableist social ostracization by retreating into a fragile, narcissistic self-concept – into the idea that because of their intelligence alone, they’re superior to the people who have hurt them.
By foregrounding autism and slotting it into the familiar structure of a supervillain’s grandiosity, Bereznai accomplishes several things. He shows how absurd and unhelpful this kind of superiority complex really is, how instantly familiar it feels even in the absurd, exaggerated setting of a supervillain comedy, how fragile it is and how it’s always on the verge of falling apart – but also how real and visceral and familiar the pain is that lurks underneath it.
In men, this type of complex often comes with a helping of misogyny and a feeling of entitlement to female attention – and that’s a part of Doctor BetterThan’s character, too. I’m not always quite sure what I think of the dynamic between him and his rival supervillain, Mairī Lin. There’s a trope of misogynist man gets redeemed because a cute girl paid attention to him which I’m not super-fond of, and “The Timematician” sometimes veers a little too close to that for my liking. But there’s also an ambiguity about whether that’s what’s really going on, even at the end; and the super-powered back-and-forth between the characters – full of flirting one moment and double-crossing the next, quick-growing crystals, and armies of color-coded, squabbling robots – was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged.
(Admittedly, I’m more willing to have patience with tropes like these from an author who, like Bereznai, is openly queer. And there’s a queer undertone to Doctor BetterThan despite the m/f romance; his most treasured childhood memory, for instance, is an opera aria that he once performed in drag.)
Anyway, this whole book is really goofy and also a surprisingly fun ride. If you have dreamed of grandiose autistic villainy in a brightly colored comic book world, then you should check it out.
The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it