Sep 29 2011

Elements of Superhero Stories That Might Be Surprisingly Plausible

Published by at 11:11 pm under Superhero Stories,Writing Articles

SCIENCE/MEDICINE

 

1. Invisible jets will probably be feasible within 50 years.  We already have rudimentary cloaking devices and one researcher suggests that it could eventually be used on submarines.  (I wonder if anyone would bother applying this technology to a jet, though.  Isn’t the ability to see jets irrelevant if the battle is resolved from miles away?)

 

2. An Iron Man-style powersuit might be viable someday.  We already have rudimentary jet packs, military grade lasers, exoskeletons and a five-pound rocket launcher.  I’m not a scientist, but it strikes me as fairly likely that engineers could figure out how to refine and combine those elements.  Then a few questions remain (how to power it, how to stop concussive forces from killing the pilot, and why you’d bother spending all that money on a shell for a human when you could do more with a remotely-operated suit or a robot).

 

3. Technopathy might be theoretically possible.  According to Scientific American, “Signals channeled directly from the brain can already control computers and other machines.”  From there, I think it’s relatively easy to suspend disbelief that someone might be so capable at doing it that he can hack into machines with his mind.


4. It’s sort of believable that Batman could be a superb fighter even though he’s probably older than 30.  The average age of the members of Navy SEAL Team Six was 36.  In sports, a few football players have played deep into their 30s and Brett Favre had an elite season in 2009 despite being 40.  Emmitt Smith’s career lasted 4400 carries, and I’m guessing most of them ended with a tackle by at least one 300 pound defender.

 

LEGAL

 

5. Prosecutorial discretion gives authors a lot of leeway in how they cover the police’s relationship with superheroes.  American “prosecuting attorneys have nearly absolute and unreviewable power to choose whether or not to bring criminal charges.”  So, even though most acts of superheroics could be construed as felonies, it’s definitely believable that a prosecutor might pass on indicting a superhero, particularly if the hero is effective and/or popular.  (In the United States, district attorneys are either elected directly or appointed by an elected official, so indicting Superman for breaking-and-entering into a supervillain’s Fortress of Terror might be an unsound career move).

 

6. Some aspects of U.S. jurisprudence are decidedly conducive to hijinks and excitement.  For example, forcible personal jurisdiction.  There’s a scene in The Dark Knight where a criminal flees to China because China won’t extradite him to Gotham.  Batman kidnaps (shanghais?) him from China and turns him over to the Gotham police.  Assuming a prosecutor wants to file charges, a judge will hear the case.  According to Law and the Multiverse, “the Supreme Court has consistently held that ‘the power of a court to try a person for crime is not impaired by the fact that he had been brought within the court’s jurisdiction by reason of a forcible abduction.’”  By the way, I can’t even begin to imagine what circumstances prompted the Supreme Court to address this issue often enough to have a consistent opinion on it.

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “Elements of Superhero Stories That Might Be Surprisingly Plausible”

  1. Contra Gloveon 30 Sep 2011 at 3:12 am

    “…why you’d bother spending all that money on a shell for a human when you could probably do more with a robot.”

    The movie Iron Man 2 addresses this exact issue.

  2. B. McKenzieon 30 Sep 2011 at 7:08 am

    “The movie Iron Man 2 addresses this exact issue.” The movie mentions it, but I don’t think the movie provided any compelling reasons why a manned suit would be preferable.

    There are several reasons an unmanned suit piloted remotely (or, eventually, a robot) would be preferable. An unmanned suit would be able to…
    –Spend less weight/space on the pilot. The U.S. is fielding some UAVs that are as small as 10 pounds, which definitely would not be an option in a manned vehicle.
    –Have fewer problems with rattling/killing the pilot inside.
    –Have fewer points of vulnerability.
    –Handle tougher physical maneuvers (because of G-forces and the like).
    –Go longer in the field (whereas Tony Stark needs to sleep sometime, so the Iron Man suit is either out of commission or on autopilot).
    –Not risk a human life in the event of failure.
    –Save significantly on costs (for example, $100 million for a manned F-35B or C vs. $50 million for an unmanned equivalent).
    –Cut space spent on keeping the pilot alive. For example, Tony Stark would need to include special equipment to handle oxygen issues if he wanted to go underwater, but a robot or remotely piloted unit would not.
    –Less vulnerable to mental stress. I imagine that piloting a unit remotely would be less nerve-wracking than actually being in the line of fire.
    –No risk of the pilot being captured/interrogated if the plane/suit gets taken down in enemy territory. If the equipment is very sensitive/classified, there might even be a built-in detonation mechanism so that enemy forces don’t have much to learn from or reverse-engineer.

    In 30 years, I don’t think the U.S. will be fielding any combat aircraft with human pilots–UAVs are becoming the norm.

    That said, there are a few reasons a manned suit might be preferable.
    –In social situations that require trust, like Army patrols in hostile territory, having a man inside might make the operation feel less like something out of Terminator.
    –If you have an operation where the main purpose of the suit is to get a human into or out of a dangerous situation. For example, in Iron Man 3, one of the Iron Man suits could have been used to armor the President and get him out of a very dangerous situation. If Tony Stark had only robots or remotely-controlled UAV suits, the ability to take on a passenger would probably be limited.
    –I don’t think this would happen in real life, but in comic books, superhackers might be able to cause more damage to unmanned suits.
    –If there’s a war between humans and machines (e.g. The Matrix or Terminator), having a human manually controlling everything might be a critical security feature.
    –Depending on the story, a robot’s AI might be fairly primitive and easily miss cues that humans wouldn’t. (For example, the Watson AI played in a game of Jeopardy and, in the category “U.S. Cities” it thought that the city with one airport named after a WWII hero and another airport named after a WWII battlefield was Toronto.* That said, it still beat the best humans handily because its ability to buzz in on time was superhuman).

    *Actual answer: Chicago (O’Hare and Midway).

  3. CCOlsonon 30 Sep 2011 at 8:38 am

    I’ve thought about this alot, and what I can see is that robots are only great when you A) don’t care what the people on the ground think of you (invade a country with robots and you are demanding home turf terrorism on a massive scale), B) aren’t fighting someone with access to comparable technology and C) don’t mind handing all your military might to desk jockeys who don’t have to look you in the eye when the government decides YOU are a political dissident in need of extermination, along with your family.

    The whole sentinel situation with the Xmen is a really scary possibility when the human element is removed. If the US didn’t have to send soldiers, would we be less or more likely to invade whoever we felt like? Robots are the ultimate tool of the oppressor. They are tireless, replaceable, remorseless and loyal. They can execute a busload of children who saw something they shouldn’t have, pop the last weeping six-year old in the face without blinking and then NEVER TELL anyone what happened.

    I find the likely future of robot warmaking, and policing, a very very scary place.

    On the technical side, if you ever get in a parity fight, the people on the other side will have the ability to either jam your communications with your bots or possibly even steal them outright. Or it might just be two sides throwing robots at each other until the economy of one or both sides collapses.

  4. B. Macon 30 Sep 2011 at 10:51 am

    “If the US didn’t have to send soldiers, would we be less or more likely to invade whoever we felt like?” My mostly uninformed impression is that making it easier for the U.S. to get militarily involved would affect humanitarian missions (like Somalia) more than any other kind of war. The U.S. has been pretty militarily active when it feels its major interests are at stake (like when its allies Kuwait and South Korea got invaded). The fear of losing soldiers deters more relatively minor operations (like humanitarian operations where a vital interest is not at stake). After the Mogadishu disaster in 1993, it’s very unlikely that the U.S. would deploy ground forces into Somalia, for example. Having robots might make it easier to justify such a mission.

    I don’t think that robots would significantly change the calculations on how the U.S. would act towards major powers. I don’t think there are any situations where a U.S. with tons of military robots would go to war with, say, China but the present-day U.S. would not. (In part, that’s because a war with China would probably involve the USAF and USN more than the Army).

  5. Silvercaton 01 Oct 2011 at 4:38 pm

    ” By the way, I can’t even begin to imagine what circumstances prompted the Supreme Court to address this issue often enough to have a consistent opinion on it.”

    I would guess bounty hunters.

  6. B. McKenzieon 01 Oct 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Ah, bounty hunting sounds believable. Also, police officers might seize criminals outside of their jurisdiction.

  7. Contra Gloveon 03 Oct 2011 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for the detailed answer, but what I meant was that Iron Man 2 talked about why robots are preferable.

    UAVs are becoming the norm.

    Makes sense — why put a human up there if he can control it from the safety of the base? Soon enough, we’ll be able to remotely control ground troopers — though we’ll still need to defend ourselves if the enemy’s robots reach us.

    That means Star Wars and Wing Commander are all full of crap, as is any future story with human-piloted aircraft. At least Mobile Suit Gundam had the foresight to come up with an excuse to put humans in the machines (scroll down to “Minovsky physics.”)

    It’s the Pokémonization of warfare — we issue commands to our creatures in the field so that they fight the enemy. It doesn’t matter that the commands are issued by controller, or that the creatures are robots — the principe is the same.

  8. B. McKenzieon 03 Oct 2011 at 11:39 am

    “Thanks for the detailed answer, but what I meant was that Iron Man 2 talked about why robots are preferable.” Oh! Now I understand.

    Yeah, it’s a bit of a mystery why you’d want a manned suit. Unless, perhaps, you were in some sort of sci-fi situation where the enemy was SO good at robotics/electronics that it’d be really dangerous to have a machine without a human physically at the controls. For example, in the Terminator or Matrix universes (where the enemies are rogue AIs with incredible technical prowess), it’d be understandable why humans might want a human hand ready to slam the proverbial OFF button if something goes wrong.



    In The Taxman Must Die, pretty much every West Virginian (including criminals) has that level of robotics aptitude, so that’s one reason the government agency in question tends to prefer manned machines. That said, I’d like to use at least ONE robot/unmanned suit to make it easier to work in PG casualties without killing off red-shirts or seriously affecting the mood. (If the characters get the robot “killed” off, they’ll have to use an accountant at point for at least a week. So there are consequences, even though a character death isn’t one of them).



    Another possibility, one that applies to Tony Stark but that you might not want to use for a hero, is that the hero has a HUGE ego and/or is a thrill-seeker, so remotely piloting a suit would not satisfy him. Perhaps another character (like the Hulk) would lose respect for a remote pilot because the pilot isn’t putting himself on the line like his teammates are. Relatedly, perhaps the character has assassins gunning for him and it would not be safe to leave him at a remote facility without the Iron Man suit on-hand.

  9. Contra Gloveon 03 Oct 2011 at 5:49 pm

    In The Taxman Must Die, pretty much every West Virginian (including criminals) has that level of robotics aptitude…

    I’m telling you, man, you should work in something called Coal Champion Appalachius. You don’t even have to credit me. :)

  10. B. McKenzieon 03 Oct 2011 at 6:12 pm

    “I’m telling you, man, you should work in something called Coal Champion Appalachius.” I don’t think I’m familiar with the reference.

  11. Contra Gloveon 03 Oct 2011 at 7:04 pm

    It’s not a reference — I made it up on the fly. You see, the idea is that Appalachius is a giant robot that protects West Virginia’s coal mines. It is, of course, piloted by a teenager.

  12. B. McKenzieon 03 Oct 2011 at 7:08 pm

    The coal mines are where they hide the real research.

  13. Contra Gloveon 04 Oct 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Returning to the subject of robots in combat, I still see a role for human forces in the battlefield of the future. While the formal militaries will be largely robotic (with or without human controllers), the people will still need to defend themselves against robot attacks, since you’ll want to save your own robots for a counterattack (or your robot forces were defeated.) This means arming a large part of the populace and training them in basic weapon usage. Since you’ll be shooting robots*, there won’t be as much guilt or anguish about destroying them.

    * A possible future law of war could mandate that military robots must obviously look like machines.

  14. Crystalon 06 Oct 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Telekinesis might also be possible. There’s a game out there called Mindflex, where you (supposedly) use your brain waves to control a fan that lifts a ball in the air. The harder you concentrate, the faster the fan goes, and the higher the ball lifts.
    (That might fall under telepathy…I don’t know.)
    It’s weird, but cool. :D

  15. CCOlsonon 06 Oct 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Technopathy, actually, as it’s a machine registering the intensity of a specific signal in your brain by directly monitoring that signal.

  16. Michael Richmanon 02 Dec 2011 at 9:55 pm

    “For example, forcible personal jurisdiction. There’s a scene in The Dark Knight where a criminal flees to China because China won’t extradite him to Gotham. Batman kidnaps (shanghais?) him from China and turns him over to the Gotham police.”

    The People’s Republic was not amused. They banned The Dark Knight. I think they still permitted the violation of The Dark Knight’s copyright.

    “According to Law and the Multiverse, “the Supreme Court has consistently held that ‘the power of a court to try a person for crime is not impaired by the fact that he had been brought within the court’s jurisdiction by reason of a forcible abduction.’” By the way, I can’t even begin to imagine what circumstances prompted the Supreme Court to address this issue often enough to have a consistent opinion on it.”

    The only time I can remember this being an issue was when we tried Noriega on cocaine trafficking after we invaded Panama.

  17. B. McKenzieon 02 Dec 2011 at 10:15 pm

    “The only time I can remember this being an issue was when we tried Noriega on cocaine trafficking after we invaded Panama.” That was the only one I was familiar with, too. After doing some research, I found that one more mundane example is that police officers from one precinct and/or state sometimes arrest suspects in another precinct and/or state. They can also use deception or coercion/threats to bring the suspect back into their jurisdiction. For example, if the police want to arrest John Smith and only have his phone number, they could pretend to be morgue officials and/or funeral home operators and claim that Smith’s mother had died and ask whether he will be at the funeral. Smith might be too dumb to check with other family members and/or scared that the police are tapping their phones, so he might fall for it.

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