Cover image of "The Ninth Metal," a superhero story

By all accounts, what came to be called science fiction first appeared in print in 1818 with the publication of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein. Later efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Jules Verne in France and H. G. Wells in England imagined feats beyond the boundaries of known science in such novels as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds. Their heirs in the Golden Age of Science Fiction continued exploring ideas inspired by science and technology. For decades afterward, they and their imitators persisted in focusing on what they imagined to be possible given what they knew of the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Superhero comics enter the genre

Meanwhile, however, beginning in the 1930s, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and others began a new, loosely related tradition, imagining a flurry of superheroes. Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. Spider-Man. Captain America. The writers and artists who created these and other paragons of righteousness and justice made no pretense to scientific knowledge or realism. For years, there was no noticeable overlap between the two traditions. Yet now, somehow, the lines between science fiction and superhero fantasy have become blurred. Benjamin Percy’s superhero story, The Ninth Metal, is a case in point. It’s a science fiction novel that . . . well, isn’t science fiction.

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy (2021) 309 pages ★★★☆☆

Cover image of an issue of DC Comics' "Green Arrow," a superhero story like this novel
DC Comics’ Green Arrow, one of the characters for which author Benjamin Percy wrote scripts for many years. Characters in this novel would fit nicely into the pages of DC or Marvel Comics. Image: DC Database – Fandom

The story quickly goes off the rails

The Ninth Metal starts off promisingly enough. Debris from a comet with the official name of P/2011 C9 showers the Earth with uncounted thousands of meteorites—but the story quickly goes off the rails. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the debris delivers a killer fungus, while in Bangladesh it creates an “electrical phantom.” And in the iron country of northern Minnesota a torrent of meteors laces the region with deposits of the “ninth metal.” (The existing eight are the “noble metals” that include palladium, platinum, and gold. They’re all elements that combine with oxygen only rarely.)

Unaccountably, this ninth metal absorbs and transmits energy in abundant quantities. Later, we discover, a rare few people, bathed in the ninth metal, acquire superpowers. Of course, they would have died on impact, but, whatever. What might have been an interesting inquiry into the effects of multiple meteor strikes becomes instead a superhero story. As I suggested, the story is nuts.

One-dimensional characters, personifying evil

True to his roots as a comic book writer, Percy proceeds to portray the Minnesota town of Northfield as a hotbed of contention between two evil corporations. A Texas-based mining company called Black Dog Energy has come to town to challenge the dominance of the homegrown firm, Frontier Metals, a fourth-generation company built on a fortune made in the Iron Range. Black Dog’s Walter Eaton and Frontier’s Talia Frontier could easily slip into the pages of Batman or Superman Comics, personifying evil. But their designs are challenged when Talia’s younger brother, John Frontier, returns to town after five years to attend her wedding.

Meanwhile, a teenage farm boy’s body has been infused with the new metal. As he shows unique capabilities unknown to science, the Department of Defense has descended on the town and opened a black site to study him. The head of the project, another one-dimensional evil-doer, has him kidnapped for examination deep inside the secret site.

Naturally, all these strands of the story become tangled up with one another. What else is new? But it’s a pity. Benjamin Percy’s style is engaging. He has considerable talent. It’s sad that it’s wasted on such nonsense.

About the author

Photo of Benjamin Percy, author of this superhero story

Benjamin Percy is the author of six novels, four collections of short stories, one nonfiction book, and a slew of comic book scripts. Percy and his wife live in Portland, Oregon. Percy was born in 1979 in Eugene, Oregon.

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