Monday, July 30, 2012


I like the superhero genre.

On the surface, this is no surprise. After all, at a glance, superheroism and transhumanism have a lot in common. Superheroes are a cut above "the rest" of the population, and are stronger, faster, and smarter and have powers and abilities that we can only dream about. They can do things that no person today can do. Transhumanism has similar goals; future humans may be stronger, smarter, faster and healthier than humans today, and they have seeming superpowers - the ability to think faster, the ability to see through several wavelenghts of the electromagnetic spectrum unaided, the ability to communicate "telepathically" courtesy of computers and a wireless network that they are intimately wired into, the ability to smell like they want, perhaps change their facial features and look like things that aren't even really human. Some of the more popular superpowers exist in nature and can be replicated no problem; flight can be accomplished with wings (so long as you have suitable air pressure and gravity that's not too high), which can be attached or perhaps even grown. Seeing in the dark unaided may be one of the first superpowers that humans achieve naturally; growing up, infravision was a trait of the near-human races like Elves and Dwarves in AD&D, and that's something we may accomplish. Immunity to diseases, defeating cancer, and the ability to remain young and "pretty" (for a certain value of pretty; different people find different things attractive and there's no one uniform image of what "beauty" is, no matter how much the media wants to convince you otherwise) for longer periods of time and even biological and perhaps digital immortality - all of these things are possible, but they're further down the road and for now, exist only as "super powers" in comic books and spells inside of fantasy stories.

That's on the surface. Under the surface, there's something more insidious going on. And this is where we run into my major problem with the superhero genre in specific, but fantasy in general (fantasy less so, because I'm sure there are fantasy stories that deal with the democratization of magic and how common it is, and how much it changes lives for the better - the "steampunk" sub-genre in general seems to aim for this, if not always get there. However, urban fantasy is really bad for this, by virtue of the existence of a "masquerade".  People can't have these toys, because only an unelected few are 'mature' enough to use them. It plays into the same emotions that conspiracy theories, like 9/11, Oklahoma City, the JFK shootings, Atlantis, ONI, Roswell, and to a lesser degree, Birtherism, which is based more on militant ignorance and stupidity than the above emotions, among others, play into - regret, paranoia, fear and cynicism. A more practical reason is because it keeps up willing suspension of disbelief, but these are still emotions being tapped into at the cost of keeping up that suspension). 

Transhumanism is when you take all of the marvels I detailed above and make them available to everyone. The basics - smarter, faster, healthier, stronger, the ability to control your biological sex and reproduction cycles,  "prettier" (again, for a certain value of pretty), and biological immortality - should be made available to everyone with no cost, while the additional stuff treated, like night vision, wings (if possible, and I don't see why not) and others treated like cosmetic surgery. The thing is, transhumanism is us taking this technology and setting it up so that everyone has access to it, regardless of economic level, class, race or biological sex.

The Superhero novel does not do this. The genre does not propose taking these great powers that make superheroes strong and figuring out why it works, and then giving those powers to the common man. Nowhere do scientists try to figure out why Superman is like he is, and synthesize some sort of genetic treatment that can make everyone like that. The closest that I'm aware we come is when Lux Luthor does it, and as we all know, Luthor is a villain.

My personal philosophy is transhumanism. But I like the superhero genre; and because of this, there's a fair amount of cognitive dissonance that comes along with that. I recently made a post about my take on the Dark Knight Rises; it was made shortly after the movie, so I hadn't had long enough a time to let it sit. As I have, and I've gone back and looked at the genre, and read some comments surrounding it, it's only served to crystallize my opinion of the genre.

Superheroes are answerable to nobody. They go around and they exact their own law - sure, it's the law as we know it, but they only follow that because they chose too, not because someone makes them. Superman could tear down the entire United States government and conquer the world. The fact that he doesn't, though, doesn't make it any more possible. They have these powers, these smarts, this technology, that they continually tell the rest of the world that "[we're] not ready for" yet, making them the arbiters of this secret knowledge, not unlike the old wizard who sits in his tower all day and hordes knowledge, rather than sharing it. Pop quiz: dragons are villains because they horde treasure. So why aren't superheroes villains because they horde the knowledge of their power, and their own technology?

Why, oh why, can they get away with "you can have it because you're not ready yet"?

Why, oh why, can they get away with flying around and enforcing their law on little people who aren't half as powerful as they are, operating outside of the boundaries of the police?

Why can they do this stuff, and is there any way to change this genre - salvage it - so that it's not so anti-intellectual and anti-progress?

Part of this is understanding where superheroes come from. Superhero fiction blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction; I uniformly class superhero fiction as fantasy fiction not because I don't like fantasy, but because fantasy fiction is, to me, about escapism and tapping into emotions like regret and a desire for what should've been, while science fiction is a hope about what will be. Science fiction also requires you to have, you know, actual science. Otherwise it's just fiction.

All speculative fiction (a term that Heinlein invented) can trace it's origins back to the first stories that humans told. The first stories that humans told were religious stories; they were attempts to understand the world around us. They were stories of ancestors and great deeds; not so that we can look forward and try to top them, but so we can look backwards and revere them. These were stories about gods, goddesses, and forces of nature beyond human comprehension.

Superhero fiction has a direct line back to the ancient stories of god, goddesses, and forces of nature. You needn't look any further than how they're presented: superheroes are a cut above all of us mere mortals, stronger, more powerful, and gifted. They have their powers by decree of the fates. They wear brightly colorful costumes, they tie themselves to mythic entities: Spiderman ties himself to the animal myths surrounding the spider, while Superman (who was created by two Jewish boys, ironically enough) is none other than a stand in for Christ or God himself. They have a motif; they have a theme. This motif and theme is similar to what the gods and goddesses of old had; Mercury was the God of speed and messages, and so is the Flash.

Superheroes are our modern take on gods, goddesses, and demigods and goddesses. These are the deities and natural entities of old, recast (sometimes; see Thor and Hercules) in new cloaks, with new skins. See Tony Stark, the injured billionaire who forged himself a new suit of armor to survive. An injured man who created things - this is an echo of the Hephaestus character. The Romans called him Vulcan, which is where we get the word "volcano". But Hephaestus was injured; nevertheless, he used his knowledge of the highest technology at that time - in this case, metalsmithing - to produce great weapons. Just like Stark, injured, used his knowledge of the highest technology at our time to produce great weapons or himself.

No longer does society feel beholden to these ancient characters from old mythologies. There are still those who believe in these deities and gods, but they no longer shape the flow and direction of society as they once did. We went from a multitude of gods and goddesses to just one. It's no small wonder, then, that the very first superhero should be an echo of this man - Superman, who isn't just a Christ figure, but the Christ figure, quite possibly more popular among (certain parts of) the population of the world than Jesus himself.

Because we have had science explain a lot of the questions that we had before, most of us no longer feel the need to rely on these deities to explain the world to us (including pagans who still worship them; nailing down an exact modern pagan ideology is like nailing jell-o to a wall. Perhaps more so than atheists, pagans are incredibly diverse and believe things that range from the classic take to 'whoa. That's kinda weird'. However, it's not our place to judge; just know that when you talk about modern pagans as a population - you can't). So instead, these colorful characters have been adapted to a new purpose: when the creators of Superman designed him, it was for wish fulfillment. Here was a character who could jump far, had super strength, and was a good and fair person who fought for the common man. Yes, in his early days Superman did such heroic things as trap a mining executive in his mine until he agreed to allow his workers to unionize. Amazing how far the boy scout's fallen, isn't it?

Superheroes are escapist fantasies. They're wish fulfillment. When you understand this, along with their heritage - anchored in the deities of old mythologies - you can get a full grasp on what has shaped the genre. The genre is an unmistakably Romantic genre.

Which is why this genre is so vulnerable to fascism, both protofascism and cryptofascism.

Fascism is a very romantic ideology. Fascism calls to mind hero worship and state worship; it brings to mind the idea of a "past before" that was better than the present we have now and needs to be resurrected. This was a feature of both Italian and German fascism; with Hitler trying to restore the "glory of the Reich". The Reich is German for little more than "Empire" - reich shares the same root, or is a cognate, of  the words "reign" and 'regime' (addendum: I stand partially corrected. The English cognate is "rich", and it's Latin root is "regnum", the same word we get "reign" and 'regime' from. It has a second English cognate in the form of the abandoned suffix -ric; as in "bishopric". This means almost the same thing; -ric means 'jurisdiction of', while 'reign' means 'to rule over'). The Third Reich was little more than the third time that the German Empire had rose up; starting with the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire, then the German Empire under the Prussians, and finally a new Reich under Hitler and the National Socialists. In Italy, you had Mussolini, who wanted to recreate the Roman Empire of old; the Roman Empire that had collapsed some 1000 years previous. In Japan, the worship was of the Emperor, who - and my knowledge of Shintoism is a joke, so if I'm wrong, correct me - was regarded as some sort of deity, on par with the way that the Egyptians viewed the Pharaoh.

Fascism is very nationalistic. The Nation-state, the fatherland (or Motherland; Red Fascism is still fascism), giving everything you have for your state, or as much as your little Medicare scooter and misspelled signs protesting because Glenn Beck said to, can, anyway. Fascism places the nation state above the individual; the very metaphor for fascism comes from the roman fasces, a bundle of sticks tied around an ax. It represented authority; one stick could break but the authority would remain and the fatherland would persevere. You were subjective to the state.

So where does the superhero genre and fascism intersect?

Superheroes are laws unto themselves. They have great powers; so great that I can't think of any superhero in modern popular fiction who isn't better than the police or military at what it is that they do. Nobody holds them accountable; they're above the laws. The people need the protection of a superhero, and even when they're not popular, they still prove necessary. They can operate outside of those pesky little things like due process and other safety nets put into place to make sure that the charged are not unfairly prosecuted.They are, if you think long enough about this, governments without limits. A government without a limit is a fascist government; especially one that uses such excessive force.

These are key concepts of what it means to be a superhero. These are at the heart of fascism.

And this is without getting into the miasma of sexism and male privilege that can define the genre in sometimes very unsavory ways.

This is a criticism that only works only for the superhero genre. I'm sure that the more popular takes on fantasy (such as vanilla D&D, and other fantasy roleplaying games) are as inescapably fascist at heart as the superhero genre, but to land this criticism against the entire genre is unfair; after all, it overlooks stuff written and influenced by socialists like China Mieville. So no, this is just a criticism of the superhero genre (unless, of course, this is yet another fantasy that proclaims the divine rights of the heroes, who grows up to be king of his own personal kingdom. Under which circumstances there's no such thing as a benevolent rule and a monarchy is just as unjust and criminal as a fascist dictatorship).

This flies in the face of egalitarianism and equality, which are concepts that the superhero genre, for the most part, is lacking in. This flies in the face of most currents of transhumanism, too, which seek to democratize the new technologies for everyone to use.

Only one person can do what Superman can do. And that's Superman.

So now we've seen the problem. It's anchored in old mythology; they're homegrown gods and goddesses of escapism, who are rulers unto themselves and without limits, who solve almost all problems by applying excessive force to do so. The technology that makes them work is withheld because the common folk is not yet ready for it, and even when they're unpopular with the people, they're still needed and they're still right.

So how can we fix it? I don't know, but I can tell you how I tried.

These were all problems that I was confronted with when I started writing my own superhero novel. Remember that my personal philosophy runs contra to what the genre stands from and the very core of the genre, so to correct the genre, I had to break it open and enumerate exactly what it was about the genre that needed to be fixed. It wasn't easy to do.

Batman was my inspiration. When I look at Batman, however, I have a character that I can't relate to. I can relate to Spider-man a lot easier; of all the superheroes, he's probably the one who the least god-like. He has these fantastic powers, yes, but he still has problems like the rest of us. He's not fantastically wealthy. The people don't really love him, and he's a scapegoat for the leadership in both politics and the media (the media especially). His powers do not help him a lot in every day life, and they certainly don't make his life any easier. He is about responsibility.

Batman is human in that he doesn't have any superpowers at all. He relies on technology and sheer determination to get done what he needs to get done (so does Spider-man, for that matter).

So when I started looking at ways to fix the genre, I started looking at these two. In a way, they're the most normal of the gods, goddesses, and demigods in superhero pantheon. My biggest issue was that they worked alone; sure, they were sometimes part of a team, but they weren't always part of a time and it gave the impression - especially for Batman - that he was accountable to nobody but himself and we just had to rely on his own moral compass (and the narrative) to tell us that what he was doing was right.

I also looked a character who hangs on the periphery of the superhero genre, but doesn't necessary live there: V. V is a character from the graphic novel V for Vendetta, and in the ways that I wasn't influenced by Batman/Superman was influenced by V. V is a classical superhero in some respects but not in others. V wears a mask and a costume - a Guy Fawkes mask, and Pilgram-esque style clothing (if there's a proper name for that style of clothing, please tell me). V is an anarchist, opposing a fascist government in a post-nuclear war Britain. V popularized the Guy Fawkes mask among anarchist and slacktivists and other left-leaning individuals/independents - which is ironic, since Fawkes is best known for the gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament... so he could replace it with a Catholic theocracy.

I aimed for the low end of the pantheon. I ended up with a superhero who was broke, like Spiderman, lacked superpowers, like Batman, and was politically motivated, like V. What I had wasn't a superhero at all; I had a revolutionary. All of the technology that the Blue Pimpernel uses is out-dated; sure, it's advanced by the standards of the America that she lives in, but the America she lives in hasn't advanced at all since the 2010s. So things like dilatant armor, grip tape/gecko tape that lets her climb any surface including glass, stealth rubber for jumping, and goggles that do all sorts of amazing things from seeing in the dark to forming a LAN with other goggle sets, seem rather advanced.

I was aware of how unrealistic it was to have one superhero doing everything. It was even more unrealistic when, in an effort to try and keep myself from grandstanding in the novel with my political opinion, I made the character a teenager - a politically inactive one, who doesn't understand all that well how the system works. A teenage girl with superpowers given to her by otherwise mundane technology outside of the United States; she couldn't keep it up herself for long, and I realized that she would, from the concept, have to be part of a team.

Creating a team changes the dynamic a lot. A superhero on their own can do things by themselves, but when you include a team the nature of the genre changes. They hold each other accountable, and while these are still individuals who above the law in many respects and are governments without bounds, they are now accountable to one another. Team work, not independence, is how things get accomplished. The military does not promote lone-gun rambos. They teach you how to act as a unit; a squad. Police officers are supposed to act as part of a larger machine to enforce the law as designed by a democratically elected congress that is supposed to act as a machine to do the collective will of the people who put these people in there.

The team was small; it consisted of just three teenage girls at first. There was, and there still isn't as of the writing of the second book, a clear leader among them. They all have the same powers because they all use the same technology, so the way in which they differ is personality and how they make use of them.

The team grew as I was writing. They expanded to include a young male friend of theirs and Karasu was added, and allowed access to their technology. Their technology was simple; even a teenager who had no prior experience with it could use it. So that meant almost anyone could. So their superpowers were easily accessible to the population; even though they appeared like they were magic, they really weren't - in fact, they're out of date.

The last major hurdle was accountability.

If you look at Batman, at first you get the illusion that Batman is accountable to Jim Gordon. This isn't true; they work together, but Batman doesn't take orders from Gordon, even though Gordon is the police commissioner and Batman is a vigilante. Spider-man is disliked because he operates outside of the realm of the police, doing their job.

The team wasn't really accountable to anyone. Having teenagers run around as superheroes is dangerous; teens, more so than adults, are prone to doing stupid things. Renee is a walking example of 'teens doing stupid stuff'. She got herself medically killed at least once, and that hasn't stopped her yet. Even Aya, who isn't really human, is still 18 and is still prone to doing stupid things. To make up for this, they found themselves a "mentor" of sorts. Honestly, Maggie appointed herself as their supervisor with the ultimatum that they take orders from her and let her have the last say in their plans so she can vet them and make sure they follow the law to the spirit, if not the letter, or she arrests them and they go to juvie.

Maggie is a bottom rung FBI agent. I felt a little apprehensive about making the FBI out as being heroes, but honestly, Maggie is not a top tier leader. She's responsible to her boss, and she understand the law, so even if the girls aren't legitimate law enforcers, she still holds them accountable to it. Which, while not ideal, is better than what you have in Batman - where Gordon just accepts Batman is there - and Spider-man, where the police can do nothing about him. The team is held accountable to the spirit of the law by someone who understands the law and works within the law, rather than just working on their own.

Maggie is not their parent. She is their director and supervisor, but not really the team leader. The team still lacks a leader; instead, they have some sort of ad hocracy in place where whoever knows the most about the issue at hand gets to be leader for the day. This doesn't always work for them; some of the more natural leaders, like Ofelia, can take the lead without really knowing what she's talking about, while the one who does know, Cyan, rarely says anything due to being a natural follower. The lack of leader has caused conflict between Renee and Aya, too; Aya, who has appointed herself big sister come the second book, which causes conflict because she isn't very mindful of what Renee wants or how Renee feels about certain things, while Renee, as temperamental as she is, snaps at Aya a lot, even when Aya is pointing out something Renee did wrong and is (correctly) showing her how to do it right. Maggie sums their relationship up as a 'good thing I love you, otherwise I'd kill you' situation.

While I'm talking about Aya, it should be clear I was only talking about the Cyan, Renee and Ofelia above. Aya is transhuman; she is immune to all diseases, controls her own fertility, and is actually a whole hell of a lot stronger than the other girls are - Aya is able to bust the face mask of a SWAT officer's helmet with a single upper cut. Granted, she hurt herself doing it, but it's still stronger than what the others are capable of accomplishing. In that sense, Aya is more along the lines of a superhero - but only in the United States, where the biomedicine that gave her these abilities is illegal. Outside of the United States, she's nothing special, and there are people who are even stronger and smarter.

One of the ways to deflate the genre is to pull it out, kicking and screaming, and fuse it with hard science fiction. The other ways to deflate the genre are to apply a very obvious political spin to it, and remove a lot of the mythological elements from it. Renee is not a demigod. Renee has an inordinate amount of determination and does not know what it means to say 'I give', but this is in part due to her age, in part due to the fact that she's non-neurotypical and the book acknowledges it, and in part her own natural determination, which is magnified through the lens of the other two. However, she's still no stronger than a human in good physical condition. What Renee does, anyone with their head in the wrong place and the proper technology can accomplish.

The last little bit of it came with justifying why they're outside of the law. In a modern world, this is a problem. There's no reason to act outside of the law in the United States. The law is still an institution that you can still reach, regardless what Law and Order shows you. It's not beyond salvation. If more citizens involved themselves, with oversight boards and other vehicles to hold the police accountable, corruption would not be a huge issue. As it stands, police brutality is as frighteningly common as it is because people worship the police and don't do anything about it, besides electing officials who worship the police and try to remove the money for citizen oversight bureaus. You can still call up your representative and talk with them. It's not as easy as it was, and it's less likely to make a difference, but you can still involve yourself in the political process rather than disenfranchise yourself, either as a watchdog or as someone on the ground who actually does the political campaigning.

Our society does not need superheroes. It's the last thing our society needs, here in the United States.

So, rather than us our society, I instead created a dystopia. In a dystopian United States, you could justify the existence of people acting outside of the law. In a dystopia, the law is a tool of repression, punishing the poor while servicing the wealthy. We're getting there as a nation, but we're not quite there yet. In a dystopia, power is disproportionally concentrated; we're getting there as a nation, but we're not quite there yet. We can still stop this bus and turn it around. In a dystopia, you can justify the existence of people acting outside of the law to change things; in a dystopia, superheroes are not superheroes. In a dystopian society, they're called "revolutionaries".

The dystopia is the environment for the superhero. A world where the law no longer works in favor for the little man, where the powerful in society routinely disenfranchise the poor, where minorities and persecuted groups feel the punch of a majority that despises them and hates them for their very existence. However, not all superheroes work well inside of a dystopia; Batman, for instance, would not function inside of a dystopia. Batman is part of the wealthy, whose very existence is the one of the reasons why the crime he fights exists. No, the dystopia is for an underclass of superhero - like V. A "super-revolutionary".

More than anything, superheroes represent the status quo. A super-revolutionary is an total inversion the classic superhero. Superheroes fight to keep the world the same; a revolutionary fights to change the society. A Superhero works within the world to keep it the way it is, while a revolutionary works form the outside of the world to change it. Please not that not all revolutionaries are good people - the Nazis were revolutionaries at one time, and I could pick any number of the rebel groups in Nigeria, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Zaire and others. It's the end goal, and the way you go about achieving it, that determines whether or not you're 'good' or 'bad' (themselves loaded terms; I'm sure the Nazis saw themselves as good people, and I'm sure some of them were, because they were merely trying to create order and structure out of the chaos of post-Weinmar Germany. Of course, the Nazis were also a case where the bad apples outnumbered the good, and are one of the few groups that can legitimately be called 'evil'.)

So how did I fix the genre? I removed the superpowers. I created a team who used actual technology that could exist; and by team, I mean they were an actual team. With the except of Karasu, they have not worked by themselves nor do they plan to. They work together without a clear leader, but their plans are vetted by a bottom run FBI agent who recognizes that the situation is so bad that controlled "super-revolutionaries" are the best, but not ideal, response; the people in power are used to gaming the system. When you have something that appears that's in no way part of this corrupt system, and can't be bought, it upsets how everything works and the people in power, who game the system, get nervous. They start making stupid mistakes - and stupid mistakes are how the people cleaning them up catch them. They exist in a crumbling, right-wing dystopian United States that, while not irredeemably corrupt, is far too gone for conventional means to help solve the problems - an unconventional problem sometimes requires an unconventional solution. For Renee and her friends, fighting crime is a step, not their goal. By attacking the criminal Families that support the Party, they can shake up the Party and topple it under the weight of it's own top-heavy mass; perhaps resulting in a forced change in ruling parties and, maybe, a change for the better.

It's at once a deconstruction and reconstruction of the superhero genre. I injected parts from other genres in, including genres you wouldn't think could work with the superhero genre - like hard science fiction - and dystopian literature. The superheroes are outcasts trying to make the world a better place. They're using out-of-date technology in a dystopian world; it's almost like classic cyberpunk in a way, but with the potential for changing the world for the better, like post-cyberpunk.

That's actually why I coined a new genre for the whole thing. Rather than superheroes - and by extension, superfascists - in my immense ego, I've taken to calling the genre I fused together "superpunk" or "superheropunk". This was my attempt at fixing the genre; to dismantle it and create a new one, totally anathema to the way the genre usually plays out. So this is how I attempted, too, anyway. I made it a lot easier for me to accept, anyway, because it didn't have the whole "fascist" feel to it.

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