Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why the Global Mass Rejection of Metahumans Would Be Unlikely


“Why the Global Mass Rejection of Metahumans Would Be Unlikely”

© 2003, 2013


Jordan S. Bassior

There is a tendency in some metahuman science fiction to assume that the United States of America (or, sometimes, the Western world as a whole) might reject and either imprison or expel all metahumans.  While this is certainly possible, I have noticed that the writers also assume that the Powers adopting this policy can easily retain their relative wealth and power in the world community.  There’s a problem with this.

Namely, that metahumans would, if powerful enough to be scary, also be powerful enough to constitute a major economic and military resource. Hence any country which simply expelled them would be handicapping itself against its rivals: America, which is
currently the dominant Great Power, would (because we’re also one of the most libertarian Powers) be especially unlikely to do so. It would be like the British in the late 19th century rejecting research into chemistry and metallurgy.

Now it’s most certainly true, as Peter Bruells once pointed out, that Great Powers have voluntarily given up major assets of this sort for ideological reasons.  Two obvious examples of this being the 15th-century Chinese (who forbade maritime shipping construction) and the 15th-16th-century Spanish (who drove out the Jews and Muslims who constituted most of their physicians, scholars and scientists).  So nations can choose this decision.

But note the sequels:  both Powers fell behind in the technology race, and in consequence each suffered a centuries-long Humiliation Conga (the Chinese were conquered by the Manchus in the 17th century and then dominated by the Europeans in the 19th to early 20th centuries; the Spanish were defeated by the English in the late 16th century, repeatedly defeated in the European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, and actually invaded and occupied and stripped of their overseas empire in the 19th century.).  When nations choose this decision, they choose only for themselvesother Powers gain the advantages that the rejectionists have foolishly cast away.

In fact, the obvious thing to do would be to try to keep (or get) as many metahumans as possible working for your Power. There are two general ways to do this:

1) Force
2) Persuasion.

Force sounds easy and is popular with Stephen King's “Shop,” but it's actually a very bad idea when dealing with individuals powerful enough to be major weapons / assassination squads / scientific tools in and of themselves. The obvious problem with force, applied to metahumans, is that if they resent the use of such force (and, being psychologically human, they will), they will seek every opportunity to revenge themselves upon one. And no matter how clever your control system is (explosive collars, beloved hostages, omnipresent surveillance, whatever) since you are trying to control people who have by definition unusual powers, there is a good chance that you will have a metahuman revolt on your hands.

Another problem with force is that, once it becomes known that your group is using it to control metahumans, your group is going to become very unpopular with the metahumans not already under its control. This at a minimum will mean that they will be unlikely to volunteer to join your group; they will conceal their powers or flee to lands
not under your group's sway. At a maximum, they may sign on to fight for your enemies.

Persuasion, in general, is better. An obvious means of persuasion would be to offer to pay the metahumans high salaries with all sorts of perks if they work for you. This is how most real-life special talents (inventors, financial geniuses, talented actors or musicians,
etc.) are recruited. Persuasion is far superior to force as a talent recruitment mechanism, as the former Soviet Union learned to its cost in the Cold War with the United States of America. Because of this, persuasion oriented cultures would have an advantage over force oriented ones in a metahuman world.

Assuming, that is, that everything doesn't simply fall apart. There is a serious danger, especially in a world where really high-level metahumans appear in large numbers and suddenly, that society falls apart due to the disruptive effects of thousands of metahumans all starting their own private little wars. Remember, also, that in a real world situation, their motivations would not be limited to simple "I want to be a hero" or "I want to be a villain" type things -- unless the metahuman effect selects for intelligence or sanity, there will be metahumans fighting for every crank cause that people believe in in real life.

Of course, most metahumans won't want to fight. Mr. Strong is much more likely to want to become a human load-lifting machine or rescue worker than a super-soldier; X-Ray Lass would probably rather make money fault-inspecting metal castings than exposing her tender hide to the energy blasts of Plasma Warrior. And so on.

I do think that many of the human emotional reactions would be very extreme. Even though persecution would be irrational, it would happen, and in many countries. After all, the essential irrationality of his action didn't stop Hitler from trying to wipe out the Jews-- and no Jew (as far as I know) has ever had magno-telekinetic powers.

If it's a consolation, the intolerant states would probably lose in the end. As Hitler did, but for even deeper reasons.

So, why is this notion so popular in science fiction?  Part of it is that the hardcore readers of science fiction tend to feel somewhat alienated from their own society by their own superior capabilities – they are on the average more intelligent and interested in rather esoteric and unusual things – so they can identify with the concept of metahumans being rejected by their normal human kin.  Casting the Authorities in the role of the Inquisitors of Early-Modern Spain or the Nazis committing the Holocaust just makes the good-vs.-evil contrast in the resultant conflict all the starker.

This is of course far older than the rejection of metahumans by The Authorities in comic books.  Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (1930) is about a metahuman who can find no place in normal society.  E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen, though heroes to their own culture, feel the weight of “Lensman’s Load,” the tremendous responsibility they have to others, and the Children of the Lens (1947-48) feel utterly alone when they realize that they are the first of a new species.  The novel which gives the classic expression to this feeling of simultaneous superiority and rejection on the part of fen is of course A. E. Van Vogt’s Slan (1940).  These all predate Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s first X-Men stories (1963), which were of course inspired by such science fiction.

The other reason, of course, is that Only America (or, sometimes, The West) Is Real.  It is assumed that if we reject metahumans, then of course all other countries also do, or if they accept them, that this changes nothing in the international order.  This is the sort of arrogance common to any Power or culture at the top of the international pecking order:  you can see it variously in Early Classical Greece, Late Republican to Imperial Rome, the 16th-century Spanish, the 17th-18th century French, and the 18th to early 20th-century British.  Awareness of the ultimate fates of these Powers should temper our belief that our current global domination is eternal.

If metahumans actually appeared among us, they would change society.  And any attempt to ban or oppress them would only rebound – in the long run – to the disadvantage of the Power or Powers who made the attempt.


1 comment:

  1. Once upon a time, I put a DVD of X-Men on that I had gotten for Christmas at my parents' house. My mother was correcting papers in the same room, but when the DVD was over she had finished and was watching.

    She asked how Rogue's parents had changed her diapers. I explained that the powers had kicked on for the first time in her first scene, and all mutant powers kicked on in adolescence. She know adolescents, being a chemistry teacher (she hated Order of the Phoenix for its immensely accurate depiction of Harry at that age) and has subsequently used X-Men to explain to fellow teachers the sort of persecution complex that their students so often get.