Who among us has not dreamed of having superpowers? We are urged thereto by the avalanche of comics, movies, novels, and roleplaying games featuring abilities beyond mortal ken. Yet not all superpowers are created equal. Some superpowers require secondary superpowers to survive. Other abilities have disquieting consequences for their possessors.
I’m not going to talk about superhumans with powers that would kill them or their friends if exercised. No one dreams of being any of the following:
- X-Bomb Betty (can self-detonate, producing a 150 million megaton explosion (once))
- Hazmat (lethal radioactive aura)
- Absorbing Man (can duplicate the properties of materials he touches; see footnote)
I’m talking, here, about powers that appear on their surface to be useful but later reveal themselves to be harmful to, or at least extremely alienating for, those who wield them. Below are my musings about five such examples…
Many characters in comics—the Human Torch, the other Human Torch, Flame Princess, and others—have the ability to cloak themselves in flames or in some cases (like Willy Pete (content warning) or Brimstone) are composed entirely of fire. Usually, such powers confer a degree of invulnerability to attack (ever try to shoot a fire to death?) and invulnerability to fire itself. A tricky power, which recurs again and again in comics because beings sheathed in flame look awesome.
There’s a downside, in that there are few problems that can be solved by setting things on fire. Also, human surroundings aren’t designed for fire resistance. Whole neighborhoods could go up in flames if the superhuman isn’t careful. Ditto fields and forests. Best to keep Johnny Storm far from the West Coast during the drier months. Or entirely, just to be on the safe side.
It is also true that fire is a horrific weapon. Burns are a painful way to die. Burn scars and associated trauma can be debilitating. Comics tend to handwave away these facts. But they are real. There is a reason Protocol III to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons limits use of incendiary weapons against civilians.
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to run across the country in a heartbeat, to clean one’s house in a blink of an eye, to compose an overdue Tor.com article in one flat second? Except, of course, speeders are only fast from the perspective of normal people. From their own point of view, they move at regular speeds. Tasks that those around them think are finished almost instantly are still time-consuming from the viewpoint of someone whose perceptions work a thousand times faster.
Furthermore, from the speedster’s perspective, everyone around them moves at the speed of cold molasses. A five-minute conversation might to them feel like it consumed weeks. Alan Moore once described the Flash as “a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues.” How horrific is that?
Anyone who has ever struggled to understand other people or to make themselves understood might wish for the ability to imprint information directly into someone else’s mind (or conversely, to retrieve information from said other person’s mind and figure out exactly what they are trying to say). Telepathy provides convenience and clarity.
The catch is that telepathy provides convenience and clarity. People are used to the privacy of their own minds; they share with others only that which they believe socially acceptable to share. Scan someone’s mind and who knows what you might discover? Particularly if the person being scanned makes the mistake of trying not to think of whatever terrible inner thoughts they might have… Humans have conversational circumlocution for a reason, as Poul Anderson’s “Journeys End” demonstrated. Treasure your inability to communicate.
Wanting godlike intelligence also seems like something of a no-brainer. What could possibly go wrong with enhanced cognition (leaving aside the fact that there are lots of different forms of intelligence)? Intelligence is a powerful tool, an advantage that one might expect would allow the possessor to circumvent any obstacle, social or physical.
Except…unless you’re willing to contrive some way to boost everyone else’s intelligence, you are consigned to a lifetime as the smartest person in the room. You will be the person on whose shoulders others will happily drop the weight of the world. Worse, you may be the person whose advice is frequently dismissed because nobody around them can understand the logic behind said advice, even when you take the time to dumb it down for them. Just ask Brainiac 5!
Far worse is the possibility that your exalted cognition may allow you to fully comprehend the reality of impending doom without being able to do anything to prevent doomsday. Not every problem has a solution. Ignorance can be bliss.
Indestructability has many, many positive aspects, starting with being indestructible. I cannot speak for the rest of you but whenever I am on fire, bleeding from conversational head wounds, hastily batting off fire-ants, or experiencing the immediate effects of having just been stabbed with semi-molten glass, I do yearn for a slightly greater resistance to physical harm than I seem to have. Even regenerative powers would be useful.
The catch in many cases has to do with time. Indestructible characters often gain comparative immunity to aging. On a personal level, this is awesome. On a social level, it means everyone around one is a mayfly. Every social connection between immortals and mortals is temporary by its nature. It’s the nature of life that we will outlive some friends. The excessively durable can count on outliving all of them, along with the cultures they grew up in, entire cycles of civilizations, their home worlds, and possibly the universe itself. But at least they will have lots of time to contemplate their situation.
Now, aren’t you happy to be your ordinary self?
No doubt you have your own examples of stock superpowers with unacknowledged drawbacks, or else you would like to dispute the points above. Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.