Superman

Tagged: Theme

In the same way that theories of Evolution provide an imaginative context for sf stories about the Origin of Man and Life on Other Worlds, so they govern attitudes to superhumans. There is a significant difference, though, between Darwin-inspired images of a "fitter" species and images inspired by Lamarckian and Bergsonian ideas of "creative evolution", in which the emergence of a superman might be the result of humankind's fervent desire to become something finer. Also of some relevance – although its direct influence on sf is minimal – is the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), with its heavy emphasis on the life-enhancing "will to [creative] power" which might be brought to full flower in the "Übermensch", or "overman".

Early sf writers were surprisingly loath to make the superman an outright figure of menace, even where Darwinian thought was dominant: although they usually conceded that there was no place for them in contemporary human society, and generally disposed of them in one way or another, most were very much on the side of the superhumans. The reasons are simple enough: most of the early writers concerned were harshly critical of the contemporary human condition and wholly in favour of "progress"; moreover, writers frequently credit themselves with a proto-superhuman viewpoint. It is very easy to love the notion of the superman if we believe that we might become supermen ourselves, or at least be parent to their becoming; it is for this reason that Bergsonian ideas are more frequently echoed in superman stories than Darwinian ones, and some works – most notably George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah (1921; revs 1921-1945) – are based on an explicit neo-Lamarckism. An early example, perhaps even the first, of a benign human-born superman (both a physical and a mental giant) is the eponym of Luther Marshall's Thomas Boobig (1895). Both the Darwin-inspired H G Wells, in The Food of the Gods (1904), and the Bergson-inspired J D Beresford, in The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917), are allied with their superhuman characters, agreeing with their indictments of the follies of contemporary man. The same is true of two other classic Scientific Romances directly inspired by Beresford: E V Odle's The Clockwork Man (1923) and Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935) – although the former carefully keeps its real superhumans (the makers of the eponymous Cyborg) offstage, as does Claude Houghton in This was Ivor Trent (1935) whose hysterical climax represents the extremity of UK interbellum disenchantment. The fascination which writers of scientific romance had for the idea of superhumanity is displayed also in M P Shiel's Übermensch stories, The Isle of Lies (1909) and The Young Men are Coming (1937), Muriel Jaeger's The Man with Six Senses (1927) and Hermes Speaks (1933), John Hargrave's The Imitation Man (1931), Wells's Star-Begotten (1937), Andrew Marvell's Minimum Man (1938), Beresford's "What Dreams May Come ..." (1941) and Stapledon's A Man Divided (1950). Guy Dent's Emperor of the If (1926) is especially interesting in its sceptical examination of the hypothesis that a more challenging environment would have produced a fitter and better mankind.

In France, Bergson's one-time pupil Alfred Jarry produced a comic erotic fantasia of superhumanity in The Supermale (1902; trans 1968) but The New Adam (1924; trans 1926) by Noelle Roger, working under the inspiration of religious rather than scientific ideas, presents an emotionless ultrarationalistic superman as a straightforward figure of menace. The earlier Un autre monde (1895 Revue Parisienne #5; exp as coll 1898; trans as "Another World" in A Century of Science Fiction, anth 1962, ed Damon Knight) by J-H Rosny aîné is narrated by a sickly superman whose special powers of Perception reveal the Parallel World of the title. In the USA Philip Wylie put an ordinary human mind into a superhuman body in Gladiator (1930), and thus avoided the whole issue of Intelligence, but his heroic superman decides of his own accord that there is no place for him in human society and invites God to strike him dead; God (no friend of evolution) obliges.

In early Genre SF the superman was used as a figure of menace by John Russell Fearn in The Intelligence Gigantic (June-July 1933 Amazing; 1943), but Fearn gradually relented: the debut of his series heroine in "The Golden Amazon" (July 1939 Fantastic Adventures) as by Thornton Ayre is similar, but in the very different novel The Golden Amazon (1944), and even more so in its many sequels, superwoman Violet Ray is a comic-style caped crusader. The Mutant superman in John Taine's Seeds of Life (Fall 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1951) is also menacing, meeting his end in a particularly horrible manner; but there is some attempt to analyse his viewpoint with sympathy. In Stanley G Weinbaum's "The Adaptive Ultimate" (November 1935 Astounding) as by John Jessel a scientist who creates a superwoman has to kill her in order to protect the world from her ruthlessness, but again there is a tentative expression of sympathy. Weinbaum had earlier written the posthumously published The New Adam (1939), a painstaking account of a superhuman growing up in the human world, treating the hypothesis objectively rather than intending to criticize the contemporary human condition. The superman suffers as a result of being a "feral child" among ordinary humans, but his death does not put an end to the history of his kind. Publication of this pioneering work was quickly followed by two novels that paved the way for a glut of superhuman Heroes: Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946) by A E van Vogt and Darker Than You Think (December 1940 Unknown; exp 1948) by Jack Williamson. In the former a persecuted superchild grows into mature command of his latent powers as he confronts a sea of troubles; in the latter the hero sets out to fight a species of the genus Homo which threatens to replace Homo sapiens, but discovers that he is one of the other species himself, and accepts the dictates of his genes. In both stories a superman is unhesitatingly offered to the reader for identification and, far from going to his destruction in the climax, becomes something of a Messiah figure. This new pattern quickly became a Cliché of pulp sf. Van Vogt repeated it many times, other versions including Earth's Last Fortress (March 1942 Astounding as "Recruiting Station"; vt as title story of Masters of Time, coll 1950; 1960 dos), "The Changeling" (April 1944 Astounding), The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970) and The Pawns of Null-A (October 1948-January 1949 Astounding as "The Players of Ā"; 1956; rev vt The Players of Null-A 1966) and Supermind (fixup 1977). Van Vogt abandoned writing sf for some years when he became involved with L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, which translocated this Cliché into a Pseudoscience which in turn transmuted into the Religion of Scientology. Williamson, too, repeated the formula in Dragon's Island (1951; vt The Not-Men 1968).

Genre sf of the late 1940s and early 1950s abounded with stories about groups of noble superhumans – notably covert immortals (see Immortality) – misunderstood and unjustly persecuted by their stupid, envious cousins. Great impetus was lent to the theme by the popularization of the J B Rhine (1895-1980) experiments in parapsychology (see ESP), which gave credence to the idea that there might be supermen already among us, not yet aware of their latent powers. Rhine provided a new archetype for the superhuman, outwardly normal but possessed of one or more Psi Powers. John W Campbell Jr's interest in Rhine's research and in Dianetics helped to make Astounding Science-Fiction home to a considerable "psi boom" in the early 1950s. Notable stories of persecuted Rhine-type supermen include Henry Kuttner's Baldy series, published as by Lewis Padgett (stories February 1945-September 1953 Astounding; fixup 1953 as Mutant), Wilmar H Shiras's Children of the Atom (stories November 1948-March 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953), Zenna Henderson's People series, assembled in Pilgrimage (coll of linked stories 1961) and The People: No Different Flesh (coll of linked stories 1966), and Wilson Tucker's Wild Talent (1954). Sympathy for supermen was enhanced by the frequent use of Children as protagonists, as in Slan, Children of the Atom, James H Schmitz's The Witches of Karres (December 1949 Astounding; exp 1966), Kris Neville's Bettyann (fixup 1970), George O Smith's The Fourth "R" (1959; vt The Brain Machine 1968) and John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955). (A cautionary note was sounded by Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" [in Star Science Fiction Stories 2, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl], in which a superchild institutes a reign of terror directed towards the gratification of his every infantile whim.) Physically afflicted supermen were occasionally employed to the same sympathy-seeking end, as in Theodore Sturgeon's "Maturity" (February 1947 Astounding) and John Brunner's The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy; fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965). Sometimes during this period there were secret organizations of criminal supermen fighting against the good supermen, as in James Blish's Jack of Eagles (December 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "Let the Finder Beware!"; rev 1952; cut 1953; full text vt ESP-er 1958) and George O Smith's Highways in Hiding (1956; cut vt Space Plague 1957), but even where the superman appears to be used as an outright figure of menace, as in Frank M Robinson's The Power (1956), the good guy may only be waiting for his own latent Superpowers to develop in order to bring about that menace's defeat. Similar leap-frogging accounts of confrontation include Jack Vance's "Telek" (January 1952 Astounding) and Theodore Sturgeon's "... and my fear is great ..." (July 1953 Beyond Fantasy Fiction). The everyone-can-be-superman motif reached its ultimate expression in Poul Anderson's Brain Wave (1954), in which the Earth passes out of a zone of cosmic distortion which has been damping potential intelligence throughout history, so that even idiots and animals get smart (see Arrested Development). The attractiveness of the motif is exploited to the full by comics Superheroes like Superman and Captain Marvel, whose superness is concealed by mild-mannered "secret identities". Superhero Comics were popular throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and enjoyed subsequent boom periods in the 1960s – following the resurgence of Marvel Comics, whose heroes were more morally ambiguous, suffering wildly exaggerated versions of teenage Angst and alienation – and in the 1980s, when Graphic Novels lent the format a new respectability, and when comic-book superheroes spilled over into narrative fiction in George R R Martin's Wild Cards series of "mosaic novels" (fixups 1986 onwards) and in the Temps series created by Neil Gaiman, Alex Stewart et al, beginning with Temps (anth 1991).

L Ron Hubbard is by no means the only cult-creator to have sold a pseudoscientific or quasireligious version of this motif. Many other contemporary cults offer their members supposed opportunities to cultivate transcendental powers as well as arcane knowledge. The idea of the superman, and its development in fiction, has always been entangled with religious notions of transcendence and personal salvation (see Eschatology), and the achievement of Superpowers in sf stories frequently recalls transcendental imagery of various kinds. In extreme cases it comes to resemble an apotheosis. The transcendental version of the superman myth is particularly obvious in certain works by Charles L Harness, including Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos; rev 1984), the memorable novella "The Rose" (March 1953 Authentic; title story of coll 1966) and The Ring of Ritornel (1968), and it forms the bases of the classic novels More Than Human (fixup 1953) by Theodore Sturgeon and Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) by Arthur C Clarke; the former tracks the maturation of a gestalt of misfit superchildren, and their eventual transcendental admission to a community of superminds, while the latter has an entire generation of Earth's children undergoing an apotheosis to fuse with the cosmic mind. The climax of Clarke's novel bears a striking resemblance to the ideas put forward by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) regarding the possible evolutionary future of humanity within a Bergsonian scheme, as expressed in The Future of Man (1959; trans 1964). A similar "cosmic mind" is featured in The Uncensored Man (1964) by Arthur Sellings, and superhuman apotheoses are also found in The Infinite Cage (1972) by Keith Laumer and Tetrasomy Two (1974) by Oscar Rossiter. Images of transcendental rebirth have likewise become common, as in several novels by Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953), in which a psychopathic murderer is "cleansed" of his madness; Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996), in which the Superpowered protagonist moves through time to appear to himself and others as a fire-shrouded vision, and is eventually cleansed in his turn; and The Computer Connection (November 1974-January 1975 Analog as "The Indian Giver"; 1974; vt Extro), in which supermen recruit others to their kind by the only process known to them, involving violent death. The survival after death of Übermensch characters is featured in Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968) by Thomas M Disch, I Will Fear No Evil (July-December 1970 Galaxy; 1970) and Time Enough for Love (1973) by Robert A Heinlein, and Traitor to the Living (1973) by Philip José Farmer. Religious imagery is overt in the many works by Robert Silverberg which couple the notion of superhumanity with the idea of rebirth, including To Open the Sky (fixup 1967), Downward to the Earth (1970), Nightwings (September 1968 Galaxy; fixup 1969), Son of Man (1971), The Book of Skulls (1972) and "Born with the Dead" (April 1974 F&SF). Silverberg's Dying Inside (1972) is another fantasy of rebirth seen in terms of the loss of a superhuman power; the decline of ephemeral superhumanity is also a powerful motif in the classic Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966) by Daniel Keyes. Messianic supermen whose deaths are redemptive appear in the two bestselling sf novels of the 1960s, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) and Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965). The transcendence of superhuman figures is by no means always quasi-Christian; the Mythology-rooted novels of Roger Zelazny delight in examining the existential problems of godlike beings – shaped by the belief systems of, for example, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, and of the Hindus – and the borderline between sf and Fantasy becomes very problematic in such works. A notable recent portrait of transcendental superhumanity, conventionally replete with quasireligious imagery, can be found in Jack Williamson's Firechild (1986).

The idea of the superman has in recent times become entangled with ideas of man/machine hybridization and Genetic Engineering. Cyborg supermen and genetically designed superhumans have become commonplace. The notion of the emergent superhuman appearing in our midst – possibly as a Mutant product of radiation – is not as significant a motif as it once was, but its various stereotypes continue to crop up. Late twentieth-century stories of superchildren include David Palmer's Emergence (1984) as well as young-adult novels like Alexander Key's Escape to Witch Mountain (1968) and Virginia Hamilton's Justice and Her Brothers (1978), all three of which have sequels, as does a similar novel featuring an older central character, Carole Nelson Douglas's Probe (1985). Timothy Zahn's A Coming of Age (1985) is a more sophisticated work in the same vein; Ann Maxwell's Timeshadow Rider (1986), a pioneering exercise in the sf love story, seems rather more juvenile than the juvenile novels. A more ambivalent view of emergent superchildren is taken in the Strugatski brothers' The Ugly Swans (1972; trans 1979). More sober studies in superhuman existentialism include Wyman Guin's The Standing Joy (1969) and Raymond Z Gallun's The Eden Cycle (1974) – although Gallun's later Bioblast (1985) is far more melodramatic. The tradition of Beresford's The Hampdenshire Wonder is belatedly carried forward by George Turner's Brain Child (1991), and that of Stapledon's A Man Divided by Robert Charles Wilson's The Divide (1990). The idea of emergent superhumanity remains highly significant in the works of Ian Watson, where it is intricately interwoven with the notion of Conceptual Breakthrough. Watson rarely imagines the breakthrough to superhumanity as an easy matter, and in such early novels as The Embedding (1973) and The Jonah Kit (1975) the attempts to achieve it fail, but in The Martian Inca (1977), Alien Embassy (1977), Miracle Visitors (1978) and The Gardens of Delight (1980) advancement is possible; the easier transitions of the light-hearted Converts (1984) are less convincing.

It is arguable that no other symbol in sf has evolved quite so dramatically as that of the superman, which has consistently pandered to the simplest and most basic form of human wish-fulfilment while sometimes carrying out far more sophisticated and ingenious analyses of our aspirations and our fears. [BS]

see also: Paranoia.

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