I have never completely understood the latest sci-fi fixation with ‘super powers’, where the main protagonist is just some ordinary person who just happens to be able to go invisible, or read minds, or teleport (but not all three).
Inevitably this singular ability then becomes the ‘gimmick’ on which plots are hung.
To which I say ‘ptooey’, because if you have one magic teen angst wish-fulfilment power, surely you’d have the lot? Put another way, this one-trick pony idea is a bit like saying ‘well, I have the power to walk, but only sideways on every alternate Thursday’.
And yes, I know very well that the intent is to limit the character’s ability to perform a deus ex machine and thus destroy any plot tension. But there are, I think, other ways of doing that. A. E. van Vogt excelled at that technique back in the golden age. A lot of his stories flowed around ‘constrained supermen’. My favourite has always been The Silkie, which in novel form was a lash-up of three loosely linked novellas. Silkies were powerful and intelligent life-forms able to survive and travel unprotected in space, control gravity and electromagnetic energy, and transmute into other forms (human and super-fish) – but they were dogged by severe limits based on their reproductive cycles, during which time they were vulnerable and could be held to account.
Which brings me to my favourite super-hero, Dr Manhattan, invented by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for their graphic novel Watchmen. Favourite? Absolutely. I mean, sure he looks like a naked radioactive Smurf, but he’s got proper super-powers. He is immortal and indestructible. He can do anything he wants – teleport anything to anywhere, transmute anything into anything, know his own future, pass through solid objects, see down to quantum level, be in many places at the same time, do telekinesis, levitate, create force fields, alter his own appearance, rebuild himself after being disintegrated, and more (including walking on the Sun). No limit was specified. At the end of Watchmen, Dr Manhattan was talking about creating life.
The thing is, a character with this sort of power wouldn’t invoke much plot tension. But Moore and Gibbons pulled it off – brilliantly. Usually we imagine that absolute power corrupts absolutely. They inversed the whole thing. Dr Manhattan had such colossal power that he lost interest. He couldn’t be bothered with humanity. He even had trouble telling the difference between alive and dead. And that introduced brilliant plot tension – because he had to be persuaded to do anything.
To me that’s one way of doing things. Van Vogt showed us another.
What’s your favourite super-power? And how do you think these should be handled in stories?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016