Saturday, December 10, 2011

What If Super-heroes Walked Among Us?

How would the real world treat people with super-powers?

Lots of stories have been written to explore this theme and, to a degree, I touch upon it in my work-in-progress, The Power Club.  However, I do so with a slightly different twist.

Most authors assume that people with extraordinary powers have some responsibility “to serve and protect” ordinary folks.  Like Superman, they become super-cops, in other words.  And super-hero fiction tends to adopt two extreme views of super-heroes: Either their influence on the world is overwhelmingly positive (Superman again) or overwhelmingly negative (Watchmen). 

But my take on people with super-powers (I’m deliberately avoiding the term “super-heroes” for a reason I hope will become obvious) is a little different.

In order to understand how people with powers would be received in the real world, we need to look at those the world already regards as exceptional: celebrities, politicians, star athletes, and anyone else who is famous for 15 minutes or longer.

First, though, we need to define what a super-power is.

A super-power can be defined as any ability that
  • is not shared by most people, 
  • makes its possessor stand out or unique, 
  • controls the physical world or manipulates perceptions, and/or
  • would be considered impossible by most standards of human limitations.

But even that definition breaks down.  Most people have some ability that makes them stand out from their peers or makes them unique in some way.  All of us have a limited ability to control our physical world, and the media, for one, manipulates perceptions every day.  Also, standards of human limitations are often broken by athletes.

Still, there would be an obvious difference between a bona fide super-power (Superman-level strength, for example) and more ordinary abilities (bench pressing 200 lbs, perhaps) – but where does a circus strongman who can lift a Volkswagen fit in?

Our inability to define precisely what a super-power is would play a role in how we treat those who are different.

We would start to question if anyone who exhibits remarkable abilities has a superhuman power. 

If my Uncle Fred has a unique ability to diagnose and fix car engine problems, does that mean he has some sort of car ESP?  Does a golfer who routinely gets holes-in-one use telekinesis to manipulate the ball in mid-air?  Do politicians who get elected year after year exert mind control over their constituents (actually, the last is probably true . . .).

This would create a lot of confusion, paranoia, and wish-fulfillment (“Daddy, can I have a super-power like Uncle Fred?”).

But let’s say that a few people – very few – could run at 200 mph, fly without artificial support, or manipulate light and darkness at will.  How would those people be regarded?

Most of us – busy with our own lives – would at first not regard them as much more than a curiosity, something to tweet about or share articles about on Facebook.  Sure, everyone would have an opinion.  Some would question why the government doesn’t use these people to take out [dictator or terrorist of your choice].  Others would wonder why they don’t use their powers to end world hunger or cure cancer (assuming, perhaps, that they have a responsibility to do such things).

And, if the government decided that people with powers must live in their own community – as happens in The Power Club – many of us express outrage that taxpayers have to foot the bill.  

So, for most of us, life would continue on as we watch Fox News and CNN or read the Internet to see what happens next.  Will the government figure out what do with these people who have special abilities?  Will they  figure out their own purpose?  Will Uncle Fred have to go live in “the district”?

And most of us won’t really care – until one of those people with powers goes rogue.

(And if that’s not a shameless plug for the novel, nothing is.)

Tell me your opinion: How would you react if you discovered your neighbor had a bona fide superpower?

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Eve Greene said...

My reaction? First I'd be incredibly jealous, to be honest. And I'd probably try to act as if I didn't know or care, whether they are the mundane or they turn up to be the hero kind. (Maybe a nice smile in the hallway for special kitten rescues.) But if they turned into a villain, I would be so disappointed - because I'd have secretly been building a shrine to them in my cupboard.

In short: I'd be a jealous closeted fangirl.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

I hear you, Eve. I'd be jealous if I didn't have a power!

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