Superman is boring

Superman, as orginally described, was invulnerable. Having a hero with superpowers that are too strong makes for a boring story, because a good story needs conflict. There are several ways of handling that, of course.

1. Kryptonite weakens my powers

According to some accounts, kryptonite was invented specifically to make Superman less invulnerable and boring (Paul Fairchild explains why this was a bad decision). Kryptonite, of one kind or another, is a classic solution to the problem of an overly strong superhero which, to some extent, has been used by multiple authors. It can be overused, however. If your superhero is always weak, why have such a character at all? A better variation of this approach is for the protagonist to carry his or her own metaphorical kryptonite inside, as some kind of “fatal flaw.”

2. My powers come at a heavy cost

This is one of the easiest ways for an author to ensure that his or her character does not overuse their superpowers. These superpowers may cause pain, coma, physical harm, or other damage that enforces a break between uses of the superpowers. For example, the psychic Greg Mandel in Peter F. Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising and its two sequels suffers severe headaches when his powers are used to excess. Variations of this approach are used in a number of fantasy novels.

3. My powers disturb or frighten me

A good example of this option is Doctor Who, in the eponymous TV series, who often needs to be talked into taking action. The advantage of this approach is that it produces a great deal of interesting dialogue on why the superpowers are disturbing or frightening.

4. I am still learning to use my powers

This option is particularly common in young adult fiction. It allows the author to have an attempted use of powers either succeed or fail at any point; but this makes sense with a young protagonist. The young magician Pug in Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is a good example. So is Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie trilogy. To some extent, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings can be viewed as having a combination of (3) and (4). But, however the author does it, I think that some limitation on superpowers is essential for a story to remain interesting. What do you think?


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On children’s novels

Having previously mentioned children’s fantasy literature, I thought I might follow up the theme a little more. In one kind of children’s novel, a group of child protagonists resolve some serious dilemma with little or no adult assistance (generally, the plot involves adventure of some kind). Such a story prompts the child reader to ask: “How would I handle a problem like that?” Of course, such a story also requires a reason for the lack of adult help. There appear to be four main possibilities, which I list below. Can my readers think of any others?

1: Complicit Adults

One common reason for the children to act independently is that the adults are complicit in an evil that the protagonists struggle against. A classic example is The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967). Thirteen-year-old Will is looking forward to his coming-of-age ceremony, until he discovers that this involves a mind-control device being implanted in his brain by the aliens who control the Earth. This kind of novel inevitably focuses on escape – in Will’s case, a dramatic journey on foot from England to the “White Mountains” of the title.


The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967).

2: The Desert Island

Another option involves stranding the protagonists in a location without helpful adults. The journey to this location can be undertaken through either physical or magical means, and the focus of the novel is on achieving some goal(s) and then returning home. A famous example is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).

The “desert island” option can be combined with option #1 – that is, there are adults on the island, but they are pirates (or evil in some other way). An example would be the planet Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).

3: The Unbelievable Story

Another way of ruling out adult help is by making the dilemma completely unbelievable, as in Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962). “‘The Chief of Police,’ Will said. ‘He’d listen to us—’ ‘Yeah,’ said Jim. ‘He’d wake just long enough to send for the butterfly net. Hell, William, hell, even I don’t believe what’s happened the last twenty-four hours.’


Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962).

A somewhat less satisfactory variation of this option is simply to make the adults too busy to pay attention. Alternatively, the “unbelievable story” option can be combined with the first two. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) combines elements of all three options.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950).

4: The All-Out War

Finally, the dilemma can involve a conflict which is so serious that it forces the recruitment of what are essentially child soldiers. The City of Gold and Lead (John Christopher, 1968) and The Pool of Fire (John Christopher, 1968), the sequels to The White Mountains, are two examples.


The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher (1968).

Other examples of this option include Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card, 1985) and Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden, 1993).


Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985).

Of course, there are many other kinds of children’s literature, and protagonists may also be adults, talking animals, hobbits, or other creatures. But exploring those is out of scope for this post, which is already an odd one for a science blog.


On fairy tales

“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952. The wiseacre of our time seems to be Richard Dawkins who, two years ago, told the world that fairy tales could be harmful because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism” (he had said similar things in 2008). In a later clarification, he added that fairy tales could “be wonderful” and that they “are part of childhood, they are stretching the imagination of children” – provided some helpful adult emphasises that “Do frogs turn into princes? No they don’t.”

But many scientists grew up with, and were inspired by, fantasy literature. For example, Jane Goodall tells of growing up with the novel The Story of Doctor Dolittle (as I did!). In fact, many science students and professional scientists avidly read fantasy literature even as adults (as they should). The booksthatmakeyoudumb website lists, among the top 10 novels read at CalTech and MIT, Harry Potter, Dune, and The Lord of the Rings. And Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician.

This is a science blog, so I have a strong emphasis on scientific truth, which tells us many important ecological and physiological facts about, for example, frogs. Without science, we’d all still be struggling subsistence farmers. But there is actually more than scientific truth out there.

There is also mathematical truth. Are the links in this frog network all equivalent? Yes, they are – but that is decided by mathematical proof, not by scientific experiment. It is in fact a purely abstract mathematical question – the background picture of the frog is actually irrelevant.

And there is ethical truth. Is it OK to eat frog’s legs? Science does not give us the answer to this (although logic can help us decide if our answer is consistent with our other beliefs), but fantasy literature often helps us to explore such ethical questions. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one superb example. Would you “snare an orc with a falsehood”? Would you attempt to take the One Ring and “go forth to victory”?

There is metaphorical truth. A frog may, in spite of what Dawkins says, be a handsome prince – there’s more to the universe than can be seen at first glance. Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Children often learn this important fact from fairy tales.

And there is even religious and philosophical truth. Does the frog-goddess Heqet exist, for example? Does the universe exist? Is there a spoon? The methods of philosophy are different from the methods of science, and some amateur philosophers simply state their beliefs without actually justifying them, but philosophy is actually very important. Science itself is based on certain philosophical beliefs about reality.