Thursday, November 18, 2021
The Superhero Genre and Transhumanism
I've decided to revive this blog after a long absence, I've been putting most of my effort into my worldbuilding project at the Para-Imperium. For starters I thought I'd repost my essays on the contrast between transhumanism and the superhero genre, originally posted here and here. Superheroes: Individuals with special skills, equipment, and in particular, powers that they use to fight criminals both “mundane” and superpowered like themselves. They might have mutations from laboratory accidents or accident of birth, they might have been augmented with cybernetics after sustaining horrific injuries, they could have escaped from a secret super soldier project, or maybe they weren’t human in the first place. Transhumanism: The philosophy that the limitations of the human body should be “transcended” through the use of technology. Specifically, technology internal to the body such as cybernetic implants or genetic modification. The hope is that such tech will make people hardier, smarter, longer-lived, potentially even immortal. Now, one might be forgiven for thinking that superheroes were prime examples of transhumans, but in truth the majority couldn’t be farther from them. You see, most transhumanists see the ability to choose to enhance oneself a right that should be available, though they might disagree on how one gains access to enhancement. While very few superheroes willingly obtain their powers, and if they do they either refuse to share the source of their powers or plot happens to prevent others from following in their footsteps. Captain America’s probably the closest to the transhumanist ideal as he volunteered for the super soldier project, but the serum was destroyed after his enhancement. Iron Man and Black Panther on the other hand, could make the sources of their powers available to the world, but choose not to for fear that “the wrong people” could misuse them. Of course, the main reason why superheroes can’t share their superpower sources with the world is sales. The big two comic book publishers in particular have been running their big titles for the better part of a century and they can’t risk making too many big changes to the status quo in the story, hence any world-shattering events like mass produced superpowers can’t stick. That’s also why superheroes and villains rarely stay dead. The secondary reason why superhero stories are anti-transhuman is that supers are by necessity exceptional people who accept or reject “the burden of protecting the mundanes.” Writers need a reason why these particular people are fighting crime or attempting to conquer the world, and it would be much more difficult to justify their actions if everybody had superpowers. Though frankly, I think Syndrome from “The Incredibles” said it best: “...when everybody’s special, nobody is.” Now, whether it’s possible to write a work of fiction with superheroes and transhumanism is another story. If just anyone can punch through a wall or bounce bullets off their skin there’s not really much point to committing or thwarting super-crimes. The most apparent possibility is specialization, in which some transhumans choose to focus on combat-oriented enhancements for good or ill. Of course, this presumes some kind of limitation is applied to the number or type of enhancements one person might possess. This tends to be more explicit in role-playing games than prose or comics, where powers are typically assigned point values that one must expend a resource to obtain. In cyberpunk RPGs money tends to be the resource of choice for obtaining new abilities. Money could easily be the transhuman limiting factor in your superhero story but be wary about making enhancements too expensive. If the average person cannot afford enhancement without a governmental, corporate, or criminal sponsor the setting can get very dark very fast. Of course, post-scarcity economies tend to go hand-in-hand with transhumanist settings so maybe money wouldn’t fit as a limiting factor. After money the next apparent limitation would be physical size, even nanobots take up some space in the body. It’s fully plausible that your potential superhero can’t fit their orbital calculator in with their subdermal plating and targeting implant. Related would be a limitation on how many implants the human brain can learn to control. Now, there are many settings where people can change their bodies like shirts and everybody can have access to a few dozen spare bodies, and I’m not going to try and convince you that “pattern continuity” is just Cartesian dualism stripped of the overtly supernatural elements this time, so let’s try another concept. In the Orion’s Arm setting the Singularity is not an event, rather it is a threshold for brain complexity. Once a being goes through the intensely traumatic process of ascending to a new Singularity they find it as difficult to relate to their former peers as humans to dogs. Their concerns have taken on a whole new scale, a “generalist” transhuman might distribute their consciousness processes over a dozen different specialized bodies including a spaceship, but find themselves more concerned with controlling solar flares than stopping thieves with superspeed and pyrokinetic terrorists. The third way to keep superheroes in a transhuman setting “super” involves the law. There’s a bit of an anarchist streak running through the transhumanist community but it would be possible for a government to approve limited implementation of human enhancement technology. In the most liberal versions only weaponized enhancements might be banned, as the setting gets more authoritarian enhancements that might cause collateral damage such as strength or speed boosts might be restricted, until finally you get a sort of “reverse Harrison Bergeron” where everyone is modded to the limits of “natural” human ability and no further. Now, superheroes have traditionally been vigilantes, breaking the law to carry out their idea of justice, so this doesn’t preclude the possibility of transhuman superheroes in the slightest. At most, you might add a bit more antagonism between the police and supers than was usual for even the more cynical eras of comic publication. A while after writing about how superheroes might be difficult to write in transhumanist settings I had a couple ideas for implementing them in the Para-Imperium ‘verse. One "above-board" and one "below." Sanctioned heroes: The "memetic badass" approach, where the security forces attempt to reduce expenditures by focusing not on big police departments, but on a small group of celebrity supermen with customized augmentations, movie-star good looks, and extensively marketed adventures. Not dissimilar to the purpose of Knights in Shining Armor in Middle Ages Europe. In this case, their purpose is less to fight crime as to dissuade people from committing crime in the first place, so only those with the resources to field their own super-villains, or attention-seekers like the guy Rorschach dropped down an elevator shaft, will dare to commit crimes. Either one tends to suit the entrenched oligarchy just fine, the fights make for good publicity. A sanctioned superhero's jurisdiction rarely extends beyond their home planet or habitat, and they're typically part of a planet- or star system-spanning organization of other heroes. Attempts to form a Federation-wide group like the Green Lantern Corps or their Lensmen predecessors have thus far been stalled in committee. This approach is vulnerable to the death of a superhero, as crime tends to skyrocket until a new hero manages to build an equal reputation to their predecessor. As such superhero leagues tend to have the best medical care available, including, it is rumored, illegal brain cloning. Vigilantes: The "shadowrun" approach. These tend to arise most often in polycentric legal systems like the Pallene or Cetan law systems, in which feuds can simmer between factions for decades, centuries with life extension. The romanticized version is a tragic figure like Batman or Zorro who has a legitimate grievance that the conventional authorities failed to address. That type of vigilante does exist, but tend to be short-lived as they right the wrong that led them to take up the cape and then retire, or die trying. The more common variety are mercenaries more akin to Deadpool, supersoldiers for hire willing to act as deniable assets for any House or company with sufficient credit.