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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Rethinking Superhero Ethics and Myke Cole's Shadow Ops Series

On the recent Skiffy and Fanty Show podcast, my friend Jen and I interviewed author Myke Cole about Shadow Ops:  Fortress Frontier, the sequel to his 2012 hit, Shadow Ops:  Control Point (which we interviewed him about here).  During the discussion, we (Jen and I) sidetracked from asking Myke direct questions to actually considering the world he had actually created -- specifically, the ethics of that world and how it might actually happen in the real world.  I'd like to continue some of that discussion here (on top of this post by Myke on a similar subject).

For those that are unfamiliar with Myke's work, you'll need to know that Shadow Ops takes place in an alternate present where "magic powers" (a.k.a. superhero powers) are monitored and "controlled" by the various world governments.  In the case of the U.S., they have sought to control these powers and the people who have them by banning their use in the general populace and forcing people who discover that they are "latent" to join the military (or some related agency, depending on the need).  Much of the "forcing" isn't publicly acknowledged, which becomes apparent in this brilliant book trailer for Fortress Frontier:

One of the questions I've always asked myself when looking at any superhero universe (whether it's Myke's or the X-Men universe or whatever) is "What would we actually do?"  Myke's universe is not that different from popular comics like X-Men.  In a way, the narrative of government control, often using violent force, is a staple of superhero narratives.  And rightly so.  It's possibly the most important issue in any superhero world still populated by "normies."  Magneto recognized this when he waged a personal war against humanity, assuming that mutants would become the dominant lifeforms on the planet (the evolutionary model is more important to X-Men than Shadow Ops); thus, what seems like a fit of genocidal thinking turns into a vendetta that is both biologically and personally-oriented (Magneto's heritage is crucial to his motivations, however problematic).  Of course, his actions also fueled the very things he had hoped to prevent.
No idea how he has an 8-pack...not like
he actually lifts anything.
In Myke's world, however, the the only rational answer the officials can come up with is "CONTROL" (hence the name Control Point for his first book -- one of many meanings).  Not surprisingly, this is a painfully repetitive human response.  For example, the current debate over gun control is largely an emotional response to something we don't quite understand -- mass shootings (this is not intended as a 1-to-1 analogy).  When bad things happen, the human response is often to control that thing, because to control "evil" is to secure the "good" (or something like that).  We jump on "mental health" and "fewer guns or stricter laws" because they are the simple answers to problems which, on the surface, appear simple, but, underneath, are complicated.  The same thing has happened throughout history, with some noticeable spurts of reasoned progress.*

The Shadow Ops series is a great example of this knee-jerk response at work, but based on an actionable threat. If random people gain extraordinary powers, wouldn't it make sense to launch at campaign to control those powers?  Certainly.  In the face of a presumed evil (I use this word lightly -- the "other" might be a more appropriate term), we can only conceive the arrival, the moment when we know something new and terrifying has arrived, and we must take whatever action we can to prevent that change from overwhelming civilization itself.  Some superhero universes use mutant registration, incarceration, extermination, indentured servitude (such as military service in Shadow Ops), or some other method of control that inevitably punishes the "mutant" for having abilities they didn't ask for.
George Clooney, Howard E. Rollins, Jr.,
and Aamir Khan walk into a bar... 
Mutant punishments, then, are easy analogues for the real world.  People like to make grand comparisons between gay rights, race, and so on and so forth when talking about superheroes.  They are fair comparisons when you treat the issue simplistically.  I, however, don't see the validity in such comparisons, in part because there is something tangibly different about a superhero.  Arguments against the inclusion of LGBT people in contemporary society are, in my honest opinion, based not on rational determinations of "social damage," but rather on unfounded accusations that such damage occurs and that it is exclusively the fault of LGBT people.  I have seen a few studies which suggest that children raised by gay parents may suffer as a result, but these studies are always a reflection of how social conditions influence children and marginalized groups.  In other words, if you raise kids in a homophobic culture, it shouldn't surprise us that kids of LGBT parents develop social relationships that appear "damaged" in comparison to kids of heterosexual parents; there's no way to know what effect LGBT parents have on their children without having those results tainted by the culture around us (woe be to sociology!).  Similar arguments were made about people of color and so on and so forth -- the wheel keeps turning.  The older I get, the harder it is for these arguments to remain palatable for me...
And then they made it into a movie...
But some of those same arguments are actually valid when it comes to superheroes.  For example, there are tangible social and physical impacts on the nation when unusual and seemingly supernatural powers are involved.  If you think school shootings are terrible, imagine a world with superheroes.  Someone who can control the earth around us could easily smash thousands of houses beneath a landslide.  A person with fire on his fingertips could burn cities to the ground.  Someone with a variation on teleportation (a la Jumper; porting in Myke's universe) could steal untold amounts from banks or infiltrate secure areas (and, therefore, threaten national security -- see the second X-Men movie).  Whether we like it or not, superheroes are a potential threat to social stability, since their abilities have real-world consequences for everyone, including themselves (in the form of a response from the wider public, most likely).
I think Vincent D'Onofrio is in this picture...
It's for this reason that I'm not altogether surprised by the direction the government takes in Myke's Shadow Ops series.  In a weird way, I completely understand it, and almost agree with it, even though saying as much gives me an icky feeling inside.  If people start popping up with powers, what exactly is a society supposed to do?  Is it rational to sit back and hope nothing bad will happen?  Hardly.  Even Myke acknowledges in his work that you can't control who gets what power, which means that sometimes, a bad guy with murder on the mind will hold thousands of lives on the edge of his or her fingers.  While we like to think we can control gun violence -- to a certain degree, we can -- we have absolutely no hope of doing so with powers that appear seemingly at random in the populace, and which, when in the hands of villainous people (or even folks with a civil rights agenda), can cause unimaginable damage.

The ethics of superheroes, then, is not a simple question to answer.  It is not like granting people the right to bear arms or integrating women into the military (which may or may not have significant influences on battle preparedness -- more social than physical, I imagine).  When we let superheroes roam free, we subject ourselves to an extraordinary amount of danger.  That's hard to stomach for a normy like myself, even if I also cannot imagine myself supporting indentured servitude in the military, banning, incarceration, or murder.  None of these things are palatable.  None of them are good.  But if we govern ourselves by a "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" ideology (we don't, but I like pretending), it comes down to this:  Should superheroes be allowed to live if their very existence might mean the deaths of thousands, the destruction of trillions of dollars in property, and the perpetual fear of mutant terrorists among the general populace?

I just don't know...


*I am not suggesting that the gun control debate won't end with rational changes.  Rather, I am suggesting that those changes won't come from knee-jerk emotional responses from either side.

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