Monday, August 8, 2011

What I Want Out of Superman

Superman has always bugged me. The idea of dressing up in a special outfit and going to fight crime I can sort of understand, but it makes more sense for Batman than for Superman. Batman devotes nearly his whole life to fighting crime; even those token times spent as Bruce Wayne serve mostly to provide a cover (and income) for his crime-fighting. Batman needs a base, equipment, and intelligence gathering. And after all, it's not like Bruce Wayne can just disappear - if he did, all of the nice gadgets that makes Batman a real threat to the underworld would disappear too.

On the other hand, look at Superman. He's super-strong, super-fast, has laser eyes, X-ray vision, super-breath, flight, and invulnerability. He doesn't need money or a base. In most iterations, he doesn't even need to sleep. There's no reason for him to have a secret identity, from a crime-fighting perspective. The reason for Clark Kent must, therefor, be personal.

One of the biggest things I hate about Superman is kryptonite. To me it always smacks of a cheesy plot device. Authors and screenwriters seem to feel that Superman is too powerful, so kryptonite is needed to add in some element of danger, so that the audience actually feels suspense. They actually do the same thing in some of his rescue scenarios - Superman is almost always just barely strong enough, or just barely in time. But to me, that seems the wrong way to go. It should never be a question of whether Superman will succeed.

Superman should be at risk for failure not because his powers don't work, but because the situation doesn't call for the application of brute force. He should have trouble fitting in with human society, wanting desperately to be accepted but not really knowing how to interact with people. The only reason that people adore him as Superman is because he saves their lives; as Clark Kent, he has no power, and without the grand deeds his attempts at charm just look weak and pathetic. Add to that the fact that he's kind of a uncompromising zealot, and you can see how he'd have problems when he can't hide behind having incredible powers.

And think about how tortured he must be. His super-hearing, depending on which version you go by, spans the whole world. With his super-vision, he can see through walls and watch the whole city at once. He knows that every second he spends as Clark Kent is a second that he's not saving someone from death. He can hear suicides screaming as they plummet to their death. He can hear women being raped, children being beaten. And the Clark Kent persona is so valuable to him that he stays in it, and only rushes off when there's a bigger emergency. Let's assume that Metropolis is like New York City. That means per day, there are 1.4 murders, 2 forcible rapes, 59 robberies, and 66 aggravated assaults. Those are just the violent crimes - that doesn't include all the fires, accidents, suicides, burglaries, natural disasters, etc. And yet Superman still spends a third of his time at playing human as Clark Kent. How did he come to that decision? Why does he choose to let people die?

One of the most common arguments against God is that there's still evil in the world. If there's evil, and God has the ability to stop but doesn't, then God must not be good. To my mind, the same applies to Superman. Especially after he has an interview with Lois Lane, wouldn't the public hate him for all that he doesn't do? Can't you just see the angry mother crying through an interview? "Superman stopped the train from derailing and then flew off, fast as lightning. Not three minutes later, my son was shot to death in an alley by a mugger. Superman was the only - theonly - one that could have saved him, could have stopped the bullets, and instead he just flew away. Where did he go? Why was my son less deserving of life than those people on the train?"

Or let's say that Superman actually does try to stop every crime in Metropolis. Even he isn't sufficiently powerful to stop them all, so he'd have to invent some kind of sorting algorithm (such as "If I have to choose between saving a life and saving property, I will choose to save a life"). And how would he decide? He'd be utterly crucified by the public, pretty much no matter what he chose, and it probably still wouldn't help him with the grey areas. People would write letters to the editor asking why Superman doesn't stop abortions from taking place, or they'd complain that his super-hearing and super-vision are tantamount to panopticon surveillance, or they'd complain that he's not doing anything about the prostitution problem, or they'd complain that he's exacerbating the plight of the poor, or they'd complain that he's contributing to the overpopulation of the prisons. A city with Superman working at full-speed, all the time, is one where he becomes the de facto police, and the policies that Superman enforces become far more important than the ones that are made by politicians.

You know what I think Superman feels when he comes across supervillains? I think he feels relief. Because here, finally, is something big and unambiguous, a true evil that can be stopped for good instead of a systemic problem that doesn't have a good solution. When he punches Luthor into the ground, he can forget about the liquor store robbery he stopped a few days before, and the man he put in jail whose children will grow up without a father. When Doomsday comes down, Superman can stop thinking about whether delivering food to starving people in Africa is depressing the demand for local crops and perpetuating the cycle of hunger, and just solve a problem by using his fists.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

One Sentence Book Reviews, 2011, pt. 2

I've gotten through another twenty books since last time. This puts me about a month ahead of schedule in my reading, which means that I might just have time to read Infinite Jest after all.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman - Cynical and somehow still wondrous, and offers a nice variety of emotional impacts.
Bossypants by Tina Fey - Comes from the "collection of anecdotes" school of autobiographies, but still manages to stay entertaining and have small moments of insight.
Transition by Ian M. Banks - My least favorite book by Banks so far, mostly because it seemed florid to the detriment of coherence, which I've found to be one of his most common authorial sins.
The Family Trade by Charles Stross - Doesn't really offer anything new. It has all the technical grit of Stross with none of the usual charmingly original ideas.
The Hidden Family by Charles Stross - Sequel to the above, and ideally (since this is a six book series) shows some promise of how he'll expand the central premise into something better.
Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde - Fforde seems to write the Thursday Next books in trilogies, and this first one was somewhat aggravating because it doesn't resolve anything.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - A book steeped in a deep and abiding anger, and which retreads so many arguments I've heard over and over. I'd recommend it for someone who knows nothing about atheism, but not anyone else.
The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde - Somewhat better than Lost in a Good Book, mostly because it's more whimsical and fleshes out BookWorld a bit more.
Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde - The culmination of this Thursday Next cycle, and for that reason probably my favorite. It also offers a lot of twists (and time travel!), which I dearly love.
First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde - ... And we get right back to the start of a new cycle, with too many plot hooks hanging. I also think one of the problems with whimsy (the defining feature of Fforde's writing) is that eventually things start to get too crowded.
Guns, Germs, Steel by Jared Diamond - Very interesting, but he labors a little too long on proving himself, which tends to be a problem with books which are attempting to present novel science theories (as opposed to books which present pop science that already has sufficient backing from the community).
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - This was my first reread of the year, and I liked it much less than I did in high school, mostly because the narrative seems too disparate.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Micheal Chabon - Despite (or because of) the fact that I had to keep consulting a Yiddish dictionary, it was interesting and atmospheric.
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson - World War Z, but this time with robots and worse porse!
The Company by K.J. Parker - This book is so multi-layered that I'm not sure what the ultimate message was, which I think works to its benefit.
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin - An improvement over A Feast For Crows, but only by a little bit, and Martin hangs too many cliffs.
7th Sigma by Steven Gould - It unfortunately looks like Gould will never top Jumper. There are too many hints towards a central plotline that never comes to fruition.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino - More like reading a book of poetry than an actual novel.
Rule 34 by Charles Stross - This is the Stross that I know and love, with a fast pace and interesting ideas at every turn. It's only slightly marred by being written in the second-person - I understand why he did it, but I think it hinders immersion more than it helps.
If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino - I can't decide whether this book was brilliant or completely masturbatory, but I'm leaning towards the former. There are books within the book, and a series of events that get continually more absurd.