"How Superpowered People Would Change the World"
(c) 1993, 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior)
(c) 1993, 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior)
Introduction: I originally wrote this essay in 1993, in response to my growing awareness that most story universes with super-powers did not attempt to explore the strategic and other effects which metahumans would have on them (1). I then revised and published it at various times, on Usenet and most recently on Livejournal. Here is its latest incarnation.
Powerhouses: These are the ultimate combat monsters who can fly, shoot raybeams, bounce artillery shells off their bodies, and have supersenses and incredible speed. Examples are Superman, the Silver Surfer, Miracle Man, etc.
Not all super-universes will have even one such character, and the effect of such a character should be obvious: namely, there is not a single thing that all the armies of the world could do to stop him if he was at all smart (2). This is because real-world weapon systems fall into one of two categories: powerful weapons which are useless against flying targets (like a Tomahawk missile) and agile weapons with small warheads (like a Sparrow missile). The very few weapons with powerful warheads capable of hitting flying targets (basically, nuclear SAM's) (3) are so rare that anyone with supersenses, superspeed and energy beams could easily avoid them and/or shoot them down.
Furthermore, real world political, economic, and military systems are centered upon leaders who are directly guarded by men bearing nothing heavier than automatic rifles. A Powerhouse could fly right into an enemy capital, grab all their leaders, and fly out again, kiling or imprisoning said leaders at his whim, and there is nothing which the nation under attack could do to stop him (4). How long would the morale of the victim nation last under such circumstances?
The only force at all capable of standing against such a being would be another Powerhouse, a Mentalist, or a really good Gadgeteer who could produce special weapons to take advantage of the entity's weaknesses (if any).
The effect of such beings upon the world would be that they would become the primary constituent of military power. No nation could win a war against any nation possessing even one such entity, unless it possessess such entities itself. Modern ICBM's, being unmaneuverable and highly vulnerable in flight, would be especially useless against a Powerhouse-possessing country (5).
Unfortunately Powerhouses, unlike ICBM fields, are sentient individuals who may have their own agendas. What do you do if your Powerhouse decides that he can run the country better than you can? What if he only agrees to aid you if you pursue certain policies? What if he only agrees to aid in certain policies? Where do you draw the line between the Powerhouse following his conscience and the Powerhouse dictating national policy? (6)
All this assumes that the Powerhouse is an ethical being. If he is ruthless and amoral, of course, he simply takes over. There is nothing that you can do to stop him, unless you have other Powerhouses or really good gadgeteers.
Bricks: These are big strong invulnerable guys, such as the Hulk, the Thing, etc. Surprisingly enough, these would have the least effect on the world. Sure, they are strong, but so are tanks or construction machine. Packing it into a human frame is useful, but not earthshakingly so. Their military utility is also limited. Yes, the Hulk can use a tank cannon as a personal armament, but so can a tank. Yes, artillery shells bounce off the Thing, but they do the same off a bunker. A real army (unlike the usual comic-book excuse for one) could simply use heavy weapons to annihilate such an entity, because, unlike the Powerhouse, he cannot fly or use supersenses (7). Thus, once localized, nuclear weapons or really heavy conventional arms (like some of the larger Russian ASM's) could be used to stun or kill him. Basically, Bricks would find employment as bodyguards, enforcers, supersoldiers, or in heavy labor, but they would do little to alter the balance of power. They would of course be greatly respected (or feared) by normals and probably kept track of by governments (who really wants superpowered mafioso wandering around?).
Energy Projectors: These are people who can project blasts of energy. Often they can fly or defend themselves with this energy. These people have some effect on the balance of power, in sufficient numbers. Being only man-sized and able to fly and project artillery-scale blasts while easily dodging AAM's and SAM's puts one in a position similar to the Powerhouse, with the important difference that, should a shot connect, the super is probably done for. Thus, Energy Projectors would find a valued role in any nation's armed forces, and would be more effective than the Bricks. If the form of energy projected was really unusual, they might be useful in medical and/or scientific fields as well.
Assassins: These are people whose powers and/or skills make them highly effective at infiltrating through security systems. Commonly they have superhuman agility, enhanced reflexes, extensive combat training, and possibly powers such as invisibility, teleportation, desolidification, regeneration, etc.
Surprisingly (as they are a dime a dozen in comic books) Assassins are one of the most destabilizing types of supers. The reason is that (as I mentioned before) command and control systems are highly centralized. If you are good enough to get through a leader's security and kill or kidnap him, you can change history (who shot JFK, anyway?) (8). If you can do this to your enemy in the middle of a crisis, you can disrupt his decsion-making capacity and thus derive a tremendous advantage.
The worst part of Assassins is that, by their very nature, they would be hard to monitor or control. How do you know that your Asssassins are really loyal to you? What if they come to dislike you? Is your insurance paid up?
Furthermore (unlike Powerhouses), Assassins are most effective if used unethically. A nation possessing super Assassins would be tempted to dispose of its opposition in a highly direct manner. Do you distrust the CIA now? How would you feel if Bullseye worked for them? In the real world one of the most important limitations on covert agencies is that traceless murder is actually rather difficult to commit. But if people like Deathstroke or Elektra existed, it would become quite easy.
Assassins would thus have a destablizing effect on almost every form of government, from dictatorship to democracy. Dictatorships would be vulnerable because the decision-makers would be few and easily-identified, hence vulnerable to threats of assassination (hence, they would have a strong need for metahuman bodyguards); democracies vulnerable because the decision-makers, though numerous, would have to remain relatively accessible to the people in order to remain politically-effective, complicating the guard task.
Historically, the real-life State closest to the government in a paranoid conspiracy thriller was the late-medieval to early-modern Most Serene Republic of Venice, which had a secret Council of Ten above the regular government. The very membership of the Council of Ten was secret, and the Council could issue warrants to imprison or kill those whom it deemed enemies of the Republic. It was above all other tribunals, so there was no appeal from its edicts. Even the Doges feared the wrath of the Council.
In a world with metahuman assassins, all Powers might need to develop such secret, "Majestic 12" like tribunals in order to prevent such assassins from destablizing their regimes. This leads to obvious problems, namely: How can you trust the secret tribunals not to seize total power for themselves? What happens if the assassins discover the membership of the tribunals and thus influence them against the interests of the Powers the tribunals are attempting to protect? What happens if the assassins take over the tribunals?
The opportunities for Story here are numerous. Actually living in a world where such insane paranoia became sober reality might not be half as much so fun (9).
Gadgeteers: These are the brilliant scientists who invent the comic-book technology. Examples are Reed Richards, Tom Thumb, and Doc Savage. These people are very destabilizing (as the non Western world found out to its cost after the Renaissance). This is because the discovery and application of knowledge is the essence of change and progress.
Gadgeteers would do much to alter both the balance of power and (perhaps more importantly) the nature of everyday life in the comic-book universe. After all, if Reed Richards invents aircars, how long before the car dealers have the latest models? If he can build faster-than-light starships, you won't see NASA using Space Shuttles much longer. And if the heroes start playing with fusion power packs, who really cares about all that black gunk on which the Arabs live over? (10)
The point is that (unlike in a comic book universe) in real life an invention is rarely taken to the point of practicality and then ignored, if it is truly useful at the time. For example, solar power was developed in the 1910's, but at that time was almost useless in comparison to fossil fuel technology. The airships of the 1930's were impractical without modern weather monitoring systems. But solar power, with more advanced methods of manufacture and better photo-electric conversion systems, has become practical, and airships may become practical once more (and in any case saw some of their role taken over by bigger and longer-range airplanes).
The effect of having gadgeteers in a realistic comic book universe would be that the society would gradually change from what we consider "modern" to what we consider "futuristic". In many ways this is the most fundamental change possible, and the hardest to sell commercially in comic-book form (11).
Mentalists: These are the people with awesome mental powers, usually at least telepathy and often including mind blasts or mental control. Examples are Professor X or Mastermind.
Mentalists are insidiously destabilizing. Like the assassin, a mentalist can get through any real world security system and reach a leader. Unlike the assassin, however, killing or kidnapping a leader is far from the worst he can do. A mentalist can read or control minds.
Ultimately, any conflict is determined by strategy. If one can read the mind of the opposing commander, his plans are laid bare to your side. Worse still, if one can control his mind, he can be induced to pursue a losing strategy (12).
These are but the most straightforward and least harmful applications of mentalism. For example, a mentalist can also function as an even more indetectible assassin, by ordering a victim to kill himself. A mentalist could also uncover dissent, murder the dissenters, or (even worse) order them to sabotage their own cause.
In a totalitarian society, the application of such techniques would render dictatorships unshakeable (ah, but can the dictator trust his mentalists?). A Mentalist dictator would be a frightening concept (WILD CARDS' Puppetman tried to become such a ruler). Even in a free society, the temptation represented by Mentalists might prove irresistable to the government. (What do you really think Johnson or Nixon might of done about the antiwar protests if they could have given orders to the protest leaders?). Of all the types of supers, Mentalists might prove the likeliest to take over (13).
Political power is ultimately based upon force or the threat of force. Even in a democracy, the power of the people is (however implicitly) based upon the enlightened realization that the people, if ignored, may rebel. The point of democracy is to channel rebellion into legitimate and non-violent political action, achieving the effect of a civil war (the bigger faction wins) while avoiding the destruction caused by a real civil war.
This works well, as long as people are more or less equal in intrinsic capabilities. You may not live as long or as well as a rich man, but the basic sorts of things you can do are the same. He can afford a bodyguard, but bullets don't bounce off his chest. He can afford a gun, but he can't spray laser beams from his fingers. He can buy better equipment than you, but it's at the same tech level as your own. He can investigate you, but he can't read your mind. He has more political power than you, but not more than a whole bunch of common people.
This basic human equality disappears in a super-powered world. In such a world, military (and thus political) strength is primarily based upon the loyalty of super-beings, rather upon the loyalty of the populace as a whole (14). Thus, it is no longer necessary to maintain the loyalty of the populace through democratic institutions to remain in power. (It may be more pleasant, but it is not necessary).
Superbeings would of necessity in any system of government evolve into a sort of aristocracy. (Even in the existing comic book universes, this condition exists de facto: note that superheroes rarely get in trouble with the law over what are generally vigilante tactics). In a democracy, they would be the respected guardians of law and order; in a dictatorship, the feared elite guardians of the Revolution. (This status would follow naturally from their extreme importance to society: consider how the real world regarded men like Churchill or Edison; imagine how we would regard Captain America or Reed Richards) (15).
Eventually, the tendency would be for supers to become the ruling class (16). How could a normal leader inspire the respect of super powerful individuals, in a society that more and more regarded super powers as a mark of aristocracy? This tendency would be reinforced by the dircect utility of certain types of supers (Powerhouses, Gadgeteers, and Mentalists) in the acquisition and maintence of authority.
In hindsight this would be seen as just another stage in the development of dominant classes. Just as the emergence of Bronze Age technology led to the heroic warrior elite, so would the emergence of super powers lead to the modern heroic warrior elite -- the superhero.
And the new world would be born ...
(1) - Indeed, most metahuman universes reserve all attempts at strategic and social change to the villains, and make it the major concern of the heroes to stop them. This is a profoundly "conservative" assumption, in the most fundamental meaning of the term -- indeed, it is literally "reactionary," since all the heroes do is fight to stop attempted change.
Admittedly, most comic-book villains who "attempt change" are doing so by force and with a total unconcern for human rights, and hence should be fought and stopped. The problem is that the heroes almost never attempt to make meaningful positive changes themselves, even when their powers or skills allow them to do so in sane and legitimate ways. Successful changes are almost always confined to "What If?" stories, and almost always Go Horribly Wrong.
The moral suggested by this is that we should all be happy with what we have and never try to improve the world: doing so would be at worst villainous and at best counterproductive. Needless to say, if we'd taken that attitude in 1750, we'd mostly still be working in subsistence farming and bowing to the aristocracy, and I think this would have been a very bad thing.
I don't think that the comic book writers are really that reactionary -- I think it comes from the nature of trying to do a long-running serial story, especially multiple such stories in a shared universe. If, say, Reed Richards introduced private civilian aircars, not only would society change, making it no longer "Superheroes in the modern world," but also every other series would have to take this into account. Far safer to restrict aircars to a small techophilic elite (note that not even rich men in the Marvel Universe have aircars unless they are gadgeteers or directly fund gadgeteers). That way, nothing much changes.
This works from the point of view of managing the story universe, but it makes it very poor science fiction.
(2) - "Smart" meaning that he realizes that he is being attacked by people who mean to kill him and will not necessarily limit these attempts to a one-on-one duel at close range, so he doesn't waste his time standing around pontificating in range of weapons capable of doing him serious harm. In other words, he doesn't act like a typical four-color comic book hero.
(3) - Since 1993, we've added ABM's and various kinds of laser weapons to that list, but both are rare, and even as of 2011 our present-day strategic lasers aren't powerful enough to do much damage to a Powerhouse: at best, they could dazzle one.
(4) - Unless, of course, the target was guarded by a super-powered bodyguard team, as suggested by one commenter on my earlier post on this topic.
(5) - Yes, any version of Superman from the late 1940's on (not counting the fake Supermen from the Death of Superman arc) could have single-handedly taken down a full strategic nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. The most powerful version could have gone back in time and pre-emptively destroyed the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal from the moment that he became aware that the Soviets were launching; at a more normal power level he could have simply flown around really fast and destroyed the missiles with his heat vision or by ramming them. About the only damage the Soviets could have done would have been by using Powerhouses of their own, or through covertly-emplaced nuclear devices.
I would presume that the DC Universe got around this by having the Soviets stockpile Kryptonite, or havin (several weaker) powerhouses or magic-based metahumans in their super-military, or whatever. They also had Superman be remarkably callous as regarded avoidable deaths in Third World conflicts, under the theory that he "couldn't interfere." My point is that in real life, Powerhouses would be major strategic assets -- and nations would thus be willing to expend major efforts to obtain and keep their loyalties.
(6) - To return to the Superman example once more, Superman was willing to intervene in some wars (notably World War II) but not others (notably, the ones from Vietnam on, though I suppose he's willing to stop Terrorist attacks on American soil, which kind of shows what I mean about the powerful impact of the politics of the Powerhouse on strategic issues). It is not reasonable to assume that all non-villainous Powerhouses -- even all non-villainous Powerhouses (unless we define "dissent" as "villainy") -- would share the prejudices of the American main-stream media. Nor is real life (or the verisimiltudinous "real life" of a science fiction story) always scripted by writers who share these prejudices.
Forgetting for the moment about the terrifying implications of Powerhouses who shared the prejudices of, say, the radical left or radical right, there are a heck of a lot of Powerhouses who would simply be (in the West) strong Statists or Libertarians, or even just conservatives. Each Powerhouse would be an individual, each would have his own scruples regarding for what he would or would not fight, and governments would be willing to offer them concessions to sign them onto wars or other interventions. So they would have an effect on national and international politics, whether they wanted to or not.
(7) - Comic books, like most other popular speculative fiction other than techno-thrillers or military science fiction, tend to have only a limited understanding of how actual warfare works. Because the part of warfare which is comprehensible to anyone is one guy hitting, stabbing or shooting another guy at close quarters, and because that's the easiest thing to draw, that's upon what they tend to focus.
Real warfare moved beyond that a century ago. Most combat, even with small arms, occurs at ranges where the combatants have difficulty seeing one another (in part, because the combatants are quite sensibly spending most of their time ducking behind hard cover), and the most serious casualty-producing agent of war is artillery, in its various forms (understanding airstrikes to constitute "flying artillery"). Thus, typically, a soldier who is killed or injured by the enemy in battle, is killed or injured by a bullet or shell or sub-munition launched by an attacker who he never clearly sees.
The Powerhouse is too agile to be effectively targeted by these sorts of attacks, provided that he doesn't do something stupid. Most Bricks, on the other hand, do not move fast enough that they would not have to worry about being hit by stray artillery rounds and the like.
This gets into another aspect of real warfare ignored by most comic book universes, which is that a lot of weapons target areas rather than individuals, and that much of the danger of being on the battlefield is that one may be hit by this sort of area fire.
All but the toughest Bricks would be in danger from, for instance, artillery bombardments launched at their areas -- even if the Brick could move fast enough to dodge shells aimed at himself (which is actually possible against sub-sonic artillery even for non-powered humans -- what one does is to duck into cover when one hears the gun fire, and one can sometimes even see the shell in flight), he may not be able to move fast enough to clear the target zone of a whole battery or regiment of artillery.
So even Bricks, if they wanted to stay alive on a battlefield, would spend a lot of time crouching or lying in foxholes, trenches, or bunkers. And even Bricks would sometimes fall victim to stray shells. If they had no buddies around, even being knocked unconscious might be fatal, because if the enemy won or held the ground, the unconscious Brick could be killed or captured. There's one good reason for Sidekicks!
(8) - Lee Harvey Oswald, in the real world. But in a world with metahumans, there would be many ways for someone else to be the real culprit. Disguises, clones, mind control, robots, solid holograms ... you name it, some supervillain's done it.
(9) - An obvious, and highly unpleasant, possibility is that large States collapse, and we see a return to city-states and mercenary armies, because it becomes too difficult to trust in one's own chains of command and political authority. If you suspect that the President is being secretly controlled by a Majestic 12 tribunal, or worse by an organized criminal conspiracy which has taken over such a tribunal, what motive is there for obedience other than fear of his power? And what happens when whole groups of states or provinces thus stop following his orders. It could be worse than the American Civil War, because the leaders of all the smaller Powers which emerged would be likewise vulnerable to the assassins, resulting in further fragmentation of authority.
(10) - By the same token, if a new technology requires a rare resource, other countries may benefit by the chance of that resource being present under their soil. For instance, if tellurium becomes vital to the new Solardyne 90% photo-electric cells which have revolutionized international power production and rendered coal plants obsolete, then not only America and Canada (which one thinks of as both wealthy and resource-rich countries) but Peru (resource-rich but poor) and Japan (rich but resource-poor) will benefit and become more important on the world stage owing to the bonanzas of tellurium beneath their soil.
(11) - In part because of the secondary effects, both economic and social.
For instance, if aircars become cheap and controllable enough that they can be as common as groundcars are today, this creates vast changes in society. If the aircars can cruise at (say) 300 mph, as opposed to a groundcar's 60 mph, workers can now commute over distances about 5 times as great as they do today: 300 miles, as opposed to 60. Greater metropolitan areas can now extend over several medium-sized states -- New York City's would now cover all New York State and divide New Jersey with Philadelphia's and Connecticut and Massachusetts with Boston.
Over such vast areas, it is no longer necessary for residential housing to cover any but a tiny amount of the land. This means that large areas can be allowed to slip back into a natural state: the workers can now live either in large apartments in very large residential developments (my "milespires"), or in very large private homes (essentially, small mansions), which become cheaper because of the immense expansion of acreage which is now functionally "suburban" or "exurban." Private home ownership increases and extends down the income ladder, leading to further social and political change.
Widespread aircar ownership also changes the nature of border and offshore patrols. The border patrol now needs, essentially, squadrons of fighters and gunships in order to prevent smugglers from simply flying over the borders in aircraft that are now incredibly cheap and flying near the borders in large numbers. Police have an "eye in the sky" presence dwarfing that of modern police helicopter forces; by the same token, so do the criminal gangs they oppose. As E. E. "Doc" Smith pointed out in his Lensman series, increased police and criminal mobility requires expansions of jurisdiction and the deployment of special inter-jurisdictional police forces, else the criminals can simply commit crimes in one state or country and flee to the next. Interpol acquires arrest authorities, or is replaced by some more trustworthy Western-centered force with similar powers.
And so on, and so on. Thinking about these sort of secondary consequences is what science-fiction writers do all the time: it's what comic-book writers try not to do, because one soon winds up with a very different kind of society than that of contemporary Earth. Which is why Status Quo is God is most comic books.
(12) - Take everything I said in note # 9 about metahuman assassins, and increase it by at least a full order of magnitude. Mentalists are among the worst enemies one can possibly have, as a skilled-enough mentalist can destroy your perception of reality or, on a national or international scale, take over organizations from the top down.
(13) - And worse -- even more than in the case of the assassins, one might not ever realize that a Mentalist had taken over. If he avoided the most obvious and distracting temptations, he might rule for decades without even his victims being aware of what was going on. Unlike the case of the super-Assassin takeover, there wouldn't even have to be a trail of corpses.
(14) - This is the more true given the fewer the number and the greater the power per capita of the metahumans.
If metahumans are many but not too powerful individually, then they are unlikely to act in concert to cause political change, unless forced to by some sort of persecution campaign directed toward them by the normals. What's more, as long as they are not cast out of society, metahumans if numerous will tend to politically sympathize with their groups of origin (white, black, Catholic, Protestant, male, female, etc.) or adoption (computer programmers, science fiction fans, businessmen, etc.) more than with metahumans as a community.
But if metahumans are few but powerful, they will be socially-isolated even if admired, hence tend to seek other metahumans for companionship. What's more, the decision of each metahuman will become more individually-important. In an extreme case (just one metahuman, but at Superman power levels) it would be very difficult to prevent him from becoming de facto Ruler of the World, even if he cherished no such ambition!
(15) - I briefly discussed in my previous essay on metahumans why attempting to oppress metahumans as a class (the "Genosha Solution") would be a very bad idea, especially for a Power which was but one in an international system of many Powers. In fact I don't think it would work even for a dominant Power -- if (say) the United States tried this in reality, they would merely be handing over world dominance to some more tolerant Power to which the American metahumans would then for obvious reasons emigrate.
(16) - For different values of "ruling class" in different societies. The more free and open the society to begin with, and the more it originally accepted and attempted to work with rather than oppress the metahumans when they appeared, the greater the chance that "metahuman" would merely become seen as a socially-positive attribute, tending to make one rise in society; as opposed to a source of ascribed and legally-enforcable status.
A country such as America or Canada, for instance, might manage to maintain a reasonable degree of liberty and status for normals after the social transition. Countries such as Argentina or Romania would do less well, with either specially high social status for metahumans, immunities from prosecution for some crimes and the like; or specially low social status for metahumans, and consequently a tendency to be pushed around by countries better able to attract metahumans.
Naked dictatorships such as those in most of the Mideast and Africa would probably wind up either persecuting local metahumans (and getting the crap kicked out of them on a regular basis by countries which didn't persecute metahumans) or directly ruled by the metahumans as an aristocracy. Possibly with fluctuations between the two conditions, taking the form of horrendously-violent rebellions, revolutions and civil wars.