Thursday, 7 April 2011

Superpowers. (BSDA #6)

Today I was having a conversation with a friend which revolved around the age-old question "what superpower would you have"?   My answer was, verbatim, "to be able to fly quickly. To get to Texas in like 20 minutes or something." This provoked great hilarity in my colleague because of the seemingly arbitrary nature of that restriction - why not instantly, he said, if any power is available? I didn't have a ready answer to that, because it is in a sense what superpower is considered to mean - the exercise of some power above and beyond conventional laws of physics implies a total freedom of choice as to how to operate and dominance over people without such power.

But does it?, I asked myself later, in a moment of deep and tranquil thought. The constraints of comic book fiction mean that no character is universally powerful; all superpowers fail somewhere. X-ray vision can't see through lead, Pyro in X-Men can only replicate flame rather than actually create it himself and shapeshifters are often forced to change back whether they want to or not. So superpowers in the classical sense are themselves constrained by what Terry Pratchett calls narrativium, the physical requirements necessary for a story to operate within an understandable world.

And this set me thinking. Most people, when asked for what they'd like to have most in the whole world, ask for some mechanism to easily create wealth, or the ability to stop time to allow them more opportunity to do what they enjoy, or a way to influence the emotions of other people to create a positive outcome for themselves. (Yahoo Answers knows all.) It occurs to me that these desires, perhaps manifest in superpowers, relate only to one's current set of values. They're a way of solving the problems we currently face in our lives - not having money, or time, or friends, or a lover; why else are all Marvel superheroes either computer geeks or wealthy businessmen? Surely if the concept of superpower is taken to its actual extreme, then the only useful desire would be to totally remove all of society's barriers to success, so no longer would one have to worry about having enough cash for the latest car, because the production process that created it could be controlled in its minute details by and for you. There would never be any reason to need something, or to exercise some power in order to get it, because a proper superhuman would ensure those barriers to success simply didn't exist.

This is the aim of Dr Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's interpretation of the Faust legend. His ambition on first reading seems pointless and without drive, since he is concerned not with money, nor with love, nor especially with knowledge, but with a totality of power that is quite hard for readers to imagine. He wishes that "all things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command", a desire that is in every way superior to the arbitrary desires in comic book fiction, which seek only to propel the character upwards within pre-existing social structures, rather than rejecting them entirely.

It seems therefore that "what superpower would you have" is a really rather complex question. Our answers illuminate our seeming willingness to accept the arbitrary structures of society, governed ostensibly by competition, so long as we can be seen as atop that particular pile. My laughably pointless restriction of the power to fly seems absurd, but it is no more in contrast to the concept of holding power itself than the notions of conventional superhero literature. Superheroes are in many ways conservative; despite holding, between them at least, the power to reorganise society in its entirety, they as characters, and therefore us as readers, are content with realising only their own goals within the confines of their particular societies. A superpower reflects only the desires of the person who desires it, and by demanding, in our fiction as in our lives, only the power to improve within the social world as it currently exists, rather than to reform and innovate, we are failing ourselves.

There occurs a flaw in this argument - whoever spots it and comments will win an entirely arbitrary prize. Also, FOLLOW please. It's nice to see such shining happy faces.

No comments:

Post a Comment