Why super-powers should be all or nothing in sci-fi

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).

Suttler_Missionary
This guy isn’t a superhero – he’s an ordinary guy who has to LEARN how to be a hero. From my story ‘Missionary’.

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


12 thoughts on “Why super-powers should be all or nothing in sci-fi

  1. Dr. Manhattan could see down to the quantum level? But how did he get over the uncertainty of seeing what he saw? That in itself might be a worthwhile super-power, one with interesting consequences. Like, maybe, the act of seeing is actually a form of quantum entanglement?

    1. Moore and Gibbons never explained that one! Not so much hand-waving the problem away as ducking it… but it sounded cool in the story. Apropos quantum matters, have you caught up with some of the recent work that explains quantum entanglement in purely relativistic terms? I keep meaning to write a post on it. If the interpretation is correct, it turns out Einstein nailed it in 1935 and didn’t realise he had, and then Messrs Bohr etc steered the whole quantum thing off in the wrong direction with their Copenhagen interpretation.

      1. Matthew, I do make an effort to keep up with the latest in the quantum world (and I wish I’d paid a LOT more attention back in the day, and maybe more than that!) but I have to confess the maths are starting to get beyond me. If I could live a double, or even a triple or quadruple life, I’d be tempted to go back to school and catch up. So I’ll be very interested to read any post you write on the subject, especially since quantum entanglement is quite a fascinating subject, and I had no idea Einstein weighed in on it in 1935! I also confess the history and sequence of the ideas interests me almost as much as the ideas themselves. Looking forward to that post!

        1. I’m on to it! Einstein’s paper is here: http://journals.aps.org/pr/abstract/10.1103/PhysRev.48.73 – the current argument, which I need to look into further before I understand it fully, appears to be that quantum entanglement is actually a property of Einstein-Rosen bridges between particles. If so, most of the paradox of quantum physics goes away… I don’t understand yet how that could happen in absence of space-time distortion demanding huge energies and mass, but I’ll check it out!

  2. I like limitations, particularly when the power doesn’t provide the solution. The main solution comes from within, even if the power helped the hero get to the end.

    1. Yes it does! That concept of strength within works in fiction and non-fiction alike – it’s how ordinary people become heroes – something I’ve explored repeatedly in my non-fiction military histories, which are all about people who find the strength within themselves to do what has to be done – whatever the cost (their lives, wounding, PTSD, etc). But they didn’t flag or fail. To me, that’s true heroism, and it was one accessible to any of us mere mortals, if we find ourselves in that position (though I hope we never do…)

    1. Van Vogt was a master at it – ‘The Silkie’ is always my favourite, weird though the stories were. And his earliest tales (we’re talking late 1930s here) involved someone whose superheroism came from knowledge…which is kind of prescient, given where things are today…

  3. Great piece.

    It’s interesting to see my approach to powers/magic/super-ness as I age. When I was a kid these things excited me. Rhyme or reason didn’t really play a part, as long as the powers weren’t used cheaply (deus ex and all that). But now that I’m in my 30s I’m continually asking the question, “Yeah, okay, they can do ‘INSERT POWER HERE.’ but what does that mean?”

    What’s the point, in terms of telling a story? How does adding a power or a magical ability change the story the author can tell? How does it affect the user? What are the costs of this power?

    Power without cost is beyond uninteresting to me. It’s what separates good Superman stories from bad ones. If he’s just this invincible guy who doesn’t struggle in any way, what’s the point? What’s the story trying to say?

    1. I never could understand Superman as a concept. The original character was ‘slightly super-powered’, but that ramped up to invincible/invulnerable etc during WW2 – and yeah, sure he was vulnerable to Kryptonite, but to me it still took a lot of the tension out of the stories. (‘Superman totally defeats the Gargantua Monster and sends it hurtling into the Sun by flicking it with his pinkie finger’). To me the greatest superheroes are the ones who find that strength in themselves – which is something I explored in my non-fiction military histories. Everyday folk were cast into the most awful experience imaginable, as ‘citizen-soldiers’ – and had to somehow survive it without failing. They did. Heroism? You betcha! And it came at a cost – PTSD, usually – which dogged them for the rest of their lives. I explored the same idea of ‘ordinary heroism’ in the sci-fi novella I wrote last year. To me, that sort of hero is far more credible – both in non-fiction and in fiction – than one who comes with some sort of innate extra ability.

      1. Any time I found Superman interesting it was because of what was going on in his personal life. The super-ness just accentuated how un-super he was at relationships or the human experience. In that case he’s almost a foil for himself, which can be interesting. But yeah, the powers themselves are NEVER interesting.

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