Superheroes Revisited

A while back I wrote about how the concept of superheroes might not fly in a transhumanist setting where anyone with sufficient resources might rebuild themselves into a superman.

But after writing about the different legal systems in the Para-Imperium I had a couple ideas for implementing them. 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.

Transparahumanism

Aside from pantropic modification, negligible senescence, and brain implants there are some parahumans who desire to become even more:
  • Distributed Consciousness: Sharing of memories and thoughts is possible via intensive implants and broad-spectrum signals with AI mediation, but only between bioprinted clones, the brain patterning between individuals is too different. This path is held in particular suspicion after one movement was declared nihilus following an internal war, their descendant forming the Outworlder polity of the Emilia Collective.
  • A variant is the telepathic collective, in which the original undergoes radical hemispherectomy and grows a clone around the removed half of their brain. As with identical twins the original and clone usually share enough natural QEParts to form a telepathic link. By replacing the removed hemisphere with a bioprinted clone organ this process can be repeated, but bandwidth diminishes with subsequent iterations.
  • Cybernetic Expansion: First, the potential posthuman has a digital simulacrum of their brain made, these are not considered sentient by Federation law but are typically used as a sort of “interactive memorial” for the dead. Then they load the simulacrum into a quantum supercomputer capable of running multiple instances of the program, and wire the machine directly into their brain implants. The simulacrums vastly increase the user’s multitasking capability while plugged in but they tend to retreat from the external world as time passes. Their meat bodies lying in hibernation while they mentally explore countless simulations and calculations.
  • Pseudobiological Growth: In it’s simplest form one removes the genetic limiting factors on their growth, allowing their body and brain to continue growing until their mass requires cybernetic reinforcement or a microgravity environment to support itself. However, many end up embracing radical bodysculpting into a body shape more capable of supporting its’ bulk, with many drawing inspiration from mythology. Dragons are frequently popular.
  • Soul Merger: While conventional techniques of recording and saving brain-states don’t allow different individuals to “share memories”, there are translation programs that can attempt to extract a holo-audio sequence that another brain can view through conventional senses. Some people have tried to convert that translation into direct memory information they can use, and either voluntarily or coercively take the brain states of others and add them to their own.
  • Ghul Liege: The “Ghul liege”, unlike most of their kin, is not satisfied with one hard-to-kill body, they have to have several. Along these lines they modify their VN microbots to not only maintain their bodies indefinitely, but to convert other bodies into clones of the original host. At first, the VN bots install a remote puppeting system so the liege can prevent their minions from wandering off, but over the course of several months the minion’s brain is reformatted into a copy of their liege’s brain, connected by microwave network. If the liege is killed or otherwise disconnected their minion may become an ordinary ghul if the process is less than half complete, they may even have the VN bots removed from their system in Fed-space, but if the mind-cloning is near finished they become a new vector for the ghul liege to spread.

Pantropic Modification

In certain environments the Parahuman Baseline actually proves disadvantageous. Technological tools can mitigate most of the discomfort but for long-term inhabitation, or an embargo on certain technologies, bodysculpting and gene therapy to adapt to the environment can be worthwhile. Several “templates” are in fairly common use.
Spacer: The original baseline, retained by the Centauri population but vanishing from the Cetan and Eridani gene pool between Exodus and Contact. Those born without this mod can choose to take it through nanosurgery, as well as plating their bones with titanium to prevent degeneration in zero-g.
Aquaform: The oxygen concentration of Terran water is insufficient to sustain an endothermic metabolism, but it can supplement it. This mod adds gill slits to the sides of the neck and between the ribs, while closing off the alveoli of the lungs with sphincters while submerged, along with extending the webbing between digits. With this mod alone most can go fifteen minutes or more between breaths of air, combined with Spacer mods this time can be extended to two hours.
Arid: Amplified renal system combined with subdermal water sacs to prevent water loss. On hot worlds enlarged ears with veins for heat radiation are popular as well.
Heavyworlder: Gravities between 1 and 1.5 gs can be handled with some simple bone reinforcement and hard body training. If you want to live on a planet with 2 gravities or more you need far more drastic modifications. Over the course of several months in a healing vat at steadily increasing gravity (usually in a specially designed Bernal sphere) synthetic muscles and bone are layered on until the subject looks somewhere between a gorilla and an elcor from Mass Effect. All heavyworlders are quadrupedal, relying on waldos or occasionally lifting a hand-foot to grab something.
Low-Oxy Atmo: A lighter version of the oxygen retention modifications included in the parahuman baseline intended for thin planetary atmospheres or high altitudes. So modded parahumans have their ribcage expanded to accommodate larger lungs along with slightly elevated hemoglobin and myoglobin levels. Spacer mods function just as well in thin atmospheres as any, but they require a much heartier diet and many Cetan or Eridani colonies, as well as Outworlds, favor this mod.
Polar: Adapted to icy planets with very low surface temperatures. Usually patterned after polar bears or arctic foxes with small ears, expanded nostrils, thick fur, blubber and frequently black skin with transparent fur.
Cytoran suite: Designed specifically for the heavy metal rich environment of Cytoran, the entire population of this savage Outworld can tolerate downright toxic levels of lead, aluminum, and osmium in their diets, and they need to. During growth their system deposits these metals in their bones in the form of metallic glasses, making their skeletons extremely hardy but on the off hand that they do break the ingestion of a decent amount of native meat can accelerate the knitting process. Once this bone mass is grown their digestive tract simply stops absorbing the metals and excretes them harmlessly.

The Kitsune

Kitne, Huli-jin, shifters, cubi, whatever they’re called, this semi-secret society strikes fear in the hearts of overbearing Emissaries and cruel heads of house. Most of the public, however, see them as folk heroes of a sort, visiting punishment on those too well-connected for the legal system to touch. Given all they’ve done it’s a wonder that the Kitsune order hasn’t been rooted out and exiled yet.


The reasoning, like so many other things in the Federation, goes back to the Silver Houses. In the century following the Gene Wars, when the silver fox phenotype was re-emerging from the survivors of genus Argentum, one young vixen discovered that her parents had secretly altered her genes in-vitro to turn her fur black and white. The exact details of the genetic fraud vary from telling to telling, as the case files were sealed after dismissal from lack of evidence, even the vixen’s true name is unknown. What the stories do agree on is that her disgust with her family led her to assume a new name dredged up from the archives on Terran mythology, Kumiho.


As the years went on, Kumiho was attributed to the public relations downfalls of dozens, if not hundreds of corrupt politicians. She learned their dirty secrets through hacking, networking, and outright seduction, wearing a different face each time. Civil forces raided bodysculpting boutiques to find her, but none of them had any record of servicing any parahumans with the looks she’d been recorded with. The obvious conclusion was that she had assistants, the secrets posted by “Kumiho” must have been actually from a number of different people. But even then facial recognition drew a blank.


It wasn’t until two hundred years later that one of her followers revealed the truth. On a live stream from a dozen different cameras a doe transformed into a male weasel with four tails in a matter of minutes. As their fur changed color and their flesh and bones warped and popped they explained to the astonished press that they were a member of a secret society of cyborgs founded by Kumiho.

 

Their body had been laced with motile micromachinery that could reconfigure to alter their appearance with a signal from their BCI. When they had first joined the society their natural skin was replaced with an artificial substitute that could extend or withdraw fur with variable pigmentation at will. As they accomplished assignments their connective tissues were replaced with micromachines that could detach or attach on command and extra tails were granted to them to show their progression up the society’s hierarchy and store spare protoplasm. Kumiho, according to them, had ten tails and had progressed to the point where, it was rumored, her neurons had been replaced by microbots.

For reasons unclear, the civil guard were ordered not to move until this explanation was complete. At that point the speaker made their escape, disappearing into the crowd effortlessly. Shortly after, a group of senators introduced legislation specifically licensing the existence of the society, which they named the “Kitsune” order on the advice of Terran scholars, so long as they refrained from committing capital crimes and policed their own, which they seem to have agreed to. The few times a Kitsune was indicated to be involved in a murder or act of terror a shredded body stripped of all micromachinery was discovered in a ditch shortly after. There are even a few cases where mercantile houses have specifically sought out Kitsune as representatives, though there is the possibility that they’re merely copycats using knock-offs of the Kitsune cybernetics.

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.