Friday, December 31, 2010

A Capitalist Approach to Superpowers

Originally published over at SiMF.

Superpowers are undeniably cool. Who wouldn’t want super strength, or the ability to fly? Superpowered characters are popular in science fiction because, among other things, they allow us to explore what life would be like without the physical limitations we experience as humans. But it doesn’t stop there. Energy manipulation, teleportation…some superhumans push past the boundaries of our technological limitations as well, performing with a thought feats that your average physicist can only dream about reproducing someday.

Unfortunately, while we can strive to replicate the effects of some super powers with technology, there aren’t any real superhumans. Well, some people claim to be psychic…but nobody really takes them seriously, right? After all, if they could really predict the future they’d be making a fortune off the stock market and winning the lottery every week.

Which raises an interesting question. If superhuman abilities actually appeared in our modern society, how would they be used? In literature, superhumans generally only have two options: use their enhanced abilities to do good things and become a hero, or do bad things and become a villain. You can try stalling, but sooner or later Uncle Ben is going to die and you have to choose your path. That seems awfully limited, don’t you think? It’s true, someone with super strength and invulnerability would make a good crime fighter. He’d also be really good at demolitions and handy to have at a construction site. An honest-to-goodness telepath would be highly sought after in the business world. The practical applications for someone capable of teleportation are mind-boggling…just imagine a delivery guy who could arrive with your pizza minutes after you placed your order. Wow.

This concept of extraordinary abilities being used to accomplish ordinary tasks isn’t an original one. Throughout science fiction, superhumans have occasionally used their abilities for mundane purposes. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the Flash was coerced into running on a giant hamster wheel that provided electrical power to a third of the United States. Babylon 5 featured the Psi Corp, a government agency that conscripted psychics and telepaths into civil service. Every once in a while some mutants in the X-men Universe will be enslaved and forced to use their powers to rebuild Genosha for the umpteenth time or something. There always seems to be some form of coercion, though. No one ever thinks of offering them a job with competitive salary and benefits. Is enslavement and conscription really necessary when you can pay people to do what you want?

Now I imagine that it would be more challenging to write an interesting story about a superhuman that worked in construction as opposed to being in the world-saving business, but not everyone has to be a hero! Certainly not all the time, anyway. In a society like ours, it makes more sense that people with enhanced abilities would find ways to put them to more practical, and profitable, uses. Even heroes have to pay the bills, after all. Why not take advantage of their unique abilities to do so?

But wait! ‘With great power there must also come – great responsibility!’ You know, I think that’s part of the problem. Superhumans have been used to tell stories about morality and big ethical questions for as long as they’ve been around. It’s iconic. Good versus evil, and all that jazz. The idea that you must use your abilities in a way that benefits your society is as entrenched as the idea that you must keep the fact that you have special abilities a secret. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love those stories, but as much as I enjoy reading about this Chosen One or that Super Hero, injecting a little more capitalism and practicality into the worlds of the superhumans would make for some really interesting storytelling. It could inspire more relatable characters, and take the super-powered paradigm in new directions. After all, what these stories do best is inspire and comment on society as a whole…and society as a whole is pretty capitalistic. If I woke up with psychic powers, the first thing I would do is buy myself a lottery ticket.

Happy New Year, everyone!