Who’d Want to be More than Human?

If you could have a superpower, which superpower would it be?

Oh please! Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about this.  It’s the first daydream of every card-carrying SFF fan. The entire genre depends on wish-fulfillments fantasies…we all grow up dreaming of being a superhero of some kind or another.

(Or, if comics aren’t your thing, then you may have dreamed of being a warrior, or a beautiful kick-ass princess, or a daring space captain,  or a vampire, or a werewolf….tick box as appropriate…)

I always wanted to be this guy (NOT THE WEEDY SWOT, THE BIG MACHO ONE!):

In retrospect, this is embarrassing.  It would have been cooler to want to be Spider-Man. He might have icky-sticky webbing – hello, sexual metaphor alert! – but at least he doesn’t become hugely engorged and large and green, i.e. (using the celebrated Palmer metaphor translation device) Angry Hulk =  monstrous erection the colour of a frog.

When I was older, and knew better, I wanted to be this guy:

Wolverine of course has a variety of powers; strength, feral rage, a healing factor, and an adamantium skeleton. But his main superpower is that he is cool. He is Indiana Jones with added attitude; he is the ultimate bad-ass.  He even smokes cigars (cigars make me cough, and I hate the smell they leave on your clothes – but this is a daydream, right?)

I have never, however, daydreamed of having this guy’s superpower:

Stretchy limbs, a stick  up his arse, and grey hair blooming at his temples? What’s the fun of that?

Even Johnny Storm’s power was dorky; Flame on!  It’s somehow so juvenile.  I’d much rather be the Beast – especially when he had the coloured fur.

But most of all, I wanted the full package; the super-power, and the inner torment.  The Hulk is not a happy superhero; he’s tortured, hated, mocked by society.  Peter Parker is insecure.  Wolverine has a dark back story (revealed over a billion comic stories, and rather oddly synopsised in the movie X Men Origins: Wolverine.)  The key common factor – for the adolescent me, daydreaming of being a superhero – was the notion of being a loner, an outsider, ‘not understood, ‘special’.

The essence of being a teenager dreaming of having a superpower, in other words, is to feel just like you do when you DON’T have a superpower.

In one of my favourite ever SF novels, however, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, the characters have a rather different superpower.  Six characters who separately are confused and unhappy creatures are able to join together to form a new kind of entity  – a homo gestalt.  Lone – the Idiot as he’s known in the early chapters – is the first person who is able to make the gestalt ‘blesh’;  but it brings him little happiness.  Bonnie and Beanie are two twins who can teleport but cannot speak; Baby, another member of the gestalt, is a mongoloid baby with the mind of a computer.

It’s a masterly book, in my view; one of the greatest SF novels ever. But it’s not the stuff of which daydreams are made. Here’s the first paragraph:

The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear.  His clothes were old and many-windowed.  Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead.

Men turned away from him, women would not look, children stopped and watched him. It did not seem to matter to the idiot. He expected nothing from any of them.

Lone has a superpower – telepathy – but more than that, he is a vital piece in a new kind of human species, a gestalt entity that is larger than the sum of its (human) parts. But who would want to be this sad lonely freak!  It’s  a dystopian vision; the superpower as curse, not blessing.

The recent Brit TV show Misfits also, darkly but hilariously, created a gang of superheroes who are cursed not blessed. Simon has the power of invisibility; but since he’s such an annoying dork he was pretty much invisible anyway.  Sexy, charismatic  Alisha  is cursed with the power to make men desire her when she touches them; which means she’s constantly subject to attempted rapes, and can only make love to her boyfriend though mutual, non-touching, masturbation.  And Kelly, the chav (for US readers – chavs are way lower down the social scale than trailer trash), is telepathic; which means she spends all her time hearing people think, ‘God what a slag SHE is.’

Wolverine is cursed too of course – but I would LIKE to be cursed the way he is.  I’d love to be haunted, lonely, an outcast from society, but still able to kick-ass and lord it over my enemies.

The Sturgeon vision, however – and the Misfits vision too – makes us experience what it would be like to have special powers that don’t make you feel special.  You’ d be better off being ordinary, than having THESE crap powers.

It’s the difference, of course, between wish-fulfillment genre stories and darker, more satirical explorations of the same subject matter. But it makes me aware of how very hard it would be to be ‘more than human’.  Because it’s our human frailties – our insecurity, our vanity, our ego, our petty jealousy of others – that makes us want to be superpowered in the first place.  If we really did evolve, to become better, wiser, more profound people – then Marvel Comics would go out of  business, and superheroes would go out of vogue.

This for me is one of the problems with Series 3  of Heroes, which I am watching at the moment (long after everyone else of course – Always The Last One To Catch On to a Cultural Phenomenon truly is my superpower.)  Because – without giving away actual plot details – I would say that one of the story conceits in this series is the idea that ANYONE can have a superpower. And in surprise twist after surprise twist, characters change powers, lose powers, and acquire powers when it was their role to be the character WITHOUT a power. All of this undermines the series’ original genius, its ability to create superheroes with original character traits. In the early eps, for instance,  Peter Petrelli, for instance, was gifted with the power of being able to see in 3 D despite having an annoying lock of hair dangling in front of one eye; and his brother Nathan was gifted with the power of looking like he had his elegantly cut suits sprayed on every morning.

But once characters lose their traits, and change their powers – it’s hard to root any more.  Because ‘rooting’ is at the very heart of this ‘which superpower would you like to have?’ game.  You define yourself by the character with whom you most empathise.  It works for Marvel Comics characters; it works equally well with Buffy characters. Are you Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Angel, or Xander? (I’m Giles – the annoying swotty one who never hits anyone. I’d like to be Xander, but in my heart I know I’m not good looking enough!)  But of course, in my dreams, I’m Buffy. (This is fantasy, changing sex is allowed…)

So let me answer my own opening question.

If I could be a Misfits character I’d be – well I wouldn’t be any of them actually. AARGH. Nightmare. I guess Curtis is the coolest, but his ability to turn back time would make life SO complicated.  It’s hard enough to keep track of just the ONE life…

If I could have the powers of any character in the series Heroes, it would have to be Hiro.

Not because he looks like me (I’m much closer to Peter Petrelli Parkman) but because stopping time is so cool.  Life rushes past so fast – wouldn’t it be great just to freeze it, and take a proper look!  (Time-travelling is less appealing to me, since, as with Curtis’s powers, it results in stories so complex they make my head hurt.) But Clare Bennet’s powers are also great - because they’re so limited! She has a healing gift, she can’t die, but has no superstrength and so has to use a gun or a taser against bad guys. And the sheer FRUSTRATION of that puts me in that character’s head, and makes me feel her inner torment. (The characters who can replicate other people’s powers, however, are TOO powerful.  There’s nothing ‘feel-special’ about that power; they’re all armour, no chink.)

And if I had to be a character in More than Human, I would be Lone.   Even though he’s a character who has no character; but I feel for his loneliness. I empathise with that.  It’s not wish-fulfillment – it’s connection.  I connect with Lone, the superhero who never defeats a supervillain, and lives and dies in sadness. (Damn, that sounds awful – honestly I don’t spend ALL my time in front of a computer – I really do have a BIT of a life…)

But all in all, I would rather be the Hulk.  Because the Hulk’s power is an inability to control rage within acceptable boundaries; and that’s exactly what I would love to do when I’m stuck on a country lane and the other car won’t back up an inch or so to the nearest passing place, and I have to reverse back half  a mile.  Or when I get stuck on hold calling the telephone company, and they play that annoying music. Or when…

You get the idea. There are moments when Hulk Rage would be nice.

Palmer….Kill!

Well, maybe not; maybe gentle snarky irony will always be my one and only superpower.

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