Conversion Narratives, and Beyond, Part II: Adam Silvera’s Infinity Cycle and the Superhero Quandary
By Renee HudsonApril 30, 2021
Infinity Son by Adam Silvera
Infinity Reaper by Adam Silvera
Central to the Infinity Cycle’s depiction of policing and what it means to be a powered person is the divide between celestials, people who are born with powers, and specters, people who acquire their powers from alchemists who transform the powers of magical creatures like phoenixes and basilisks. Although the celestial vigilante group, the Spell Walkers, are generally viewed positively, just before the series begins an event called the Blackout occurs, in which it appears that the Spell Walkers killed 613 people, including Senator Iron’s son, Eduardo. As the Spell Walkers’ extrajudicial acts make clear, the divide between good celestials and bad specters quickly becomes less clear even as specters continue to be viewed negatively because taking powers from magical creatures results in the creature’s death.
Yet, even the lines dividing specters and celestials becomes murky. The brothers at the center of the series, Emil and Brighton Rey, hope to manifest their grandmother’s powers of sight. While these powers ultimately do not manifest, during an altercation with one of the alchemist Luna Marnette’s gang of specters called the Blood Casters, Emil learns that he has powers, only his powers are those of a gray sun phoenix, a power that’s only possible if Emil is a specter. Eventually, Emil learns that he is the reincarnation of the Spell Walker founder, Bautista de León, who was himself a reincarnation of the first alchemist to turn into a specter, Keon Máximo, thus illuminating alternate ways that specters can come into their powers. In learning his history, Emil also learns that he is not in fact Brighton’s brother; rather, their father found Emil a couple blocks away from where Luna killed Bautista. Emil and Brighton link up with the remaining Spell Walkers and work to stop Luna’s plan of taking Reaper’s Blood, a combination of hydra, phoenix, and ghost blood. Indeed, Luna has been killing ghosts and using their blood to give specters the ability to phase. By the end of Infinity Son, Emil, Brighton, and the Spell Walkers have been unable to stop Luna from concocting her potion, but in the fight that ensues to prevent her from drinking it, Brighton consumes the Reaper’s Blood instead.
While the beginning of Infinity Reaper is focused on whether or not the Reaper’s Blood will kill Brighton (it doesn’t), the larger concern of the novel is how to ethically be a powered person, which Emil takes to mean not having powers at all. He spends the majority of the novel following in the footsteps of Bautista and Sera Córdova (Bautista’s partner) to create a power-binding potion. This aspect of the novel feeds into the issue of what defunding the police looks like as the series tries to imagine what justice looks like in a world where people have vastly different powers and ways to access power. The Infinity Cycle seems to tend toward a reformist stance, at least until we get to the end of Infinity Reaper. At the end of the first chapter of Infinity Son, Emil reflects on the Spell Walkers,
I don’t always agree with their violent, vigilante methods, but the Spell Walkers seem to be the only handful of heroes brave enough to admit that specters need to be stopped before they drive creatures to extinction and ruin the world. I hope every last specter gets locked up. Stealing blood from creatures to hook yourself up with powers, just because you weren’t born a celestial, is a heartbreaking crime.
Clearly Emil thinks that imprisonment is the solution to the problem of specters and this informs his pursuit of the power-binding potion.
Infinity Reaper promotes a more reformist stance through the presidential candidate Congresswoman Sunstar and her vice presidential candidate Senator Shine Lu, both of whom seem to be generally modeled on the Squad (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib), though not necessarily their specific political positions. Sunstar and Lu “want to abolish the Enforcer Program,” the current police force tasked with dealing with celestials. Largely made up of non-celestials using celestial-powered weapons like wands and gem-grenades, the problems with the Enforcers are akin to the real-world police and their constant targeting of people of color, especially Black people. To replace the Enforcer Program, Sunstar and Lu want to bring together all the celestial vigilante groups under what Sunstar has called the Luminary Union. Condoning the vigilante groups leads to the larger issue of who watches the watchmen.
As Alan Moore controversially argued,
I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. […] In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.
In this way, Moore aligns superheroes with other vigilante groups that we can also see in the form of lynch mobs and right-wing militias. In fact, in the Texas Rangers we have a very good example of a vigilante group that became an authorized law enforcement agency that lynched Mexican Americans. Moreover, as we saw with the January 6 Capitol Riot, part of what Post-Trump Latinx literature must contend with is the rise of such vigilante groups, especially when many people with law enforcement and military experience are in such groups. Further, Post-Trump Latinx literature must also negotiate what it means when institutions “go rogue,” as was the case when ICE continued with deportations despite President Biden’s attempts to halt them. Silvera’s Infinity Cycle is thus a powerful interrogation of what the law can and cannot accomplish, especially in deeply divided country.
Although the text is ambivalent about its position on the police, the stance on prisons is quite clear, particularly when Emil and friends decide to break Emil’s former love interest, Ness (who is actually Senator Iron’s son Eduardo), out of prison. Once in the prison, Ness is no sooner placed in his jail cell than Barrett Bishop, the prison architect who is also Senator Iron’s vice presidential candidate, decides to unlock all the cells and pit the celestials and specters against him by promising them time on the roof, closer to the sky, which amplifies their powers. During the mayhem of this scene, Brighton uses his powers against one of the worst Blood Casters, Stanton. Brighton wins the fight by ripping out Stanton’s heart, which causes him to think, “Saviors defend lives. Reapers take them.” Emil is horrified by Brighton’s actions and describes them as follows,
My brother’s face is lit up by the sapphire and silver flames burning our enemy’s heart. Brighton’s smile may as well be a promise to his powers that he’ll never bind them. He’s not throwing out human vibes. It’s like the phoenix, hydra, and ghost essences are fully converting him into someone — something else.
Emil’s description is the key to the debate about the Enforcers versus the Luminary Union — with powered people, the desire for more power and to work outside the law will always be an issue.
While it’s difficult to foresee how the Infinity Cycle will end, I am drawn to the moment in Infinity Son in which Emil considers how to tell his mother he’s a specter. He aligns this moment with his coming out, which wasn’t a coming out at all since his parents knew all along he was gay and accepted him, “[b]ut the word specter doesn’t feel good in my heart, and building the nerve to tell Ma I somehow am one is far scarier. Will she ever talk to me again? Kick me out? […] I hope I don’t lose her love.” Emil’s shame stems from his status as a specter, not a powered person in general. Yet, I’m still curious as to this parallel between Emil’s queerness and his status as a specter. I’ve thought about this in relation to Emil’s desire to see specters locked up and his search for the power-binding potion that Bautista and Sera created just before their deaths. Both novels ask us to sympathize with Emil, but this moment gives me pause about the power-binding potion and whether powers should be stifled at all. The Spell Walkers, despite their status as a vigilante group, offer an alternative to both power-binding and the extrajudicial form of justice they deploy through their network of havens, which offer refuge and care to celestials who aren’t Spell Walkers. This aspect of their work resembles a mutual aid network based on systems of care rather than vengeance that people like Brighton mistake for justice. Such a system suggests that eradicating powers isn’t the solution; rather, creating a more just society based on collectivities and coalitions to address the real power imbalances of unequal pay and access to social services offers a viable way forward for the post–Senator Iron (and post-Trump) future the series imagines. Ultimately, Silvera offers a vision of a world that has its problems, but one where people of color have agency and power and work toward a collective future rather than relying on individual transformation.
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