Musings on the Relationship of Superheroes and Transhumanism

Not directly related to the Para-Imperium universe, but relevant to my writing in general.

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 identity” 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.

 

In conclusion, there are ways to write superhero stories that aren’t contradictory to transhumanist philosophy, but most mainstream publishers don’t use them.

5 thoughts on “Musings on the Relationship of Superheroes and Transhumanism

  1. “pattern continuity”

    *cough*

    On a super-pedantic point, that’s “pattern identity”, iff’n you please. Us hard-core patternitarians don’t want any of that steenkin’ continuity on us, no sir, ‘specially as we’re very dubious about its existence as a meaningful concept in the first place.

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    1. Fixed. I keep calling it that for some reason.
      And excuse me for remembering that neurons never shut down and therefore we’re not truly “un-conscious” when asleep.

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      1. Your brain isn’t shut down when you’re asleep (or unconscious, or comatose…), no. As for the “consciousness” app running on it, [citation needed]. 😉

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