Sep 24 2008
One of our Google queries today was “can radiation give you superpowers?”
No. However, if you’re writing a superhero story, that doesn’t matter! Your readers will accept that tropes like radiation can give someone superpowers, so radiation makes for a completely plausible origin story. Except for intense training, it’s not like there’s any better alternative. (In real life, one drug addict put his brain under so much neurological stress that his sense of smell sharpened to canine-like levels, but he died a few weeks thereafter. Also, for obvious reasons, narcotics do not typically work well for superhero origin stories).
Here are some other origin stories that readers have generally come to accept.
- Cybernetics (Bionic Woman, Cyborg).
- Genetic engineering (Spiderman).
- Chemical enhancement (Green Goblin).
- Powersuits and/or exoskeletons (Iron Man, Steel). I think that the Iron Man suit will be mostly scientifically viable within 30 years (but too expensive to be practical).
- Other technological hardware–for example, three-dimensional invisibility and technopathy (a mind-machine interface) will be viable within 30 years.
- Neurosurgery. At the very least, we’ll probably be able to surgically enhance reflexes within 30 years. Suppressing pain is a distinct possibility, although pain serves an important biological role (alerting the brain to danger–for example, if you’ve been in a car accident, pain is the clearest indicator of whether you’ve injured a limb and will help you know how far you can push your body without causing lasting damage).
- Ridiculously tough training (Batman, GI Joe).
- The hero belongs to a tougher-than-human species (Superman, possibly X-Men).
- Mutations, probably (X-Men, Heroes).
- Miracle operations (Kick-Ass).
- Stimulating the visual cortex so that skills can be learned extremely quickly (The Matrix). There’s been some exciting work on this front recently.
Typically, plausible origin stories tend to be scientific. Fortunately, you don’t have to have a strong grasp of scientific research to write a compelling origin story. Generally speaking, modern scientific research in fields like genetics is conducted by large teams of scientists that spend years on each project and have access to large budgets. If you’re writing a superhero story, your readers will almost always accept that a single supergenius can perform unimaginable feats of science. Reed Richards is apparently a world-class researcher in every branch of science, and he’s able to instantaneously solve problems that would probably take a real team of scientists decades.
Here are some other (incorrect) assessments of modern science that readers will usually accept.
- Superhero scientists rarely keep good notes. When the doctor that created Captain America got killed, the formula for the serum was lost forever. Whoops. In real life, researchers keep exhaustive notes so that their experiments can be replicated.
- Superhero scientists rarely fail. In real life, scientists would test hundreds of variations of a drug, which tends to make the process inordinately laborious and expensive. But readers will accept that a superscientist tends to get it right almost immediately.
- A super-scientist can accomplish anything if he’s desperate enough. Tony Stark built a powersuit in an Afghan cave and Norman Osbourne became the Green Goblin because he was willing to subject himself to premature tests.
- Every scientifically gifted high school student will be the best in the world if the plot calls for it.