Archive for August, 2013

The Mutant Superhero

I just got back from Bubonicon 45, the science-fiction convention held here in Albuquerque every August.  For those of us interested in science fiction, either reading it or writing it or watching it on a screen, it’s a great way to meet other people and stay current on what’s going on in sci-fi.  One of the presentations I attended the first day of the convention (which ran from Friday, August 23 through Sunday, August 25) was entitled “Mutant Madness: Extraordinary Genes Run Wild” and was all about how normal characters in a sci-fi story can be changed by mutation.  The one superhero who came to my mind who fits this mold is Spiderman.  Bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains super powers through a rather ill-defined mutation in his genes.  Others who also got superpowers by mutation might be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  In any event, the concept here is that the mutation brings about superpowers which a transformed character can use for good or evil.

But these characters are fictional, of course, because no real human being exists who has superpowers, let alone given to them by mutation.  Or do they?

Let us not dismiss this problem too quickly.  A situation may exist–and I’m talking in total reality, here–that qualifies as a superpower given by mutation.  Are you familiar with the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot?  I reviewed it on this blog site on May 6, 2010, and revisited it on May 8, 2011.  The book recounts the life of Henrietta Lacks who developed cervical cancer and died within a few months of diagnosis.  From that cancerous tissue a biopsy was taken which resulted in the development of a continuous cell line called HeLa (from the first two letters of her names).   That cell line has been grown in innumerable laboratories around the world and used in countless experiments in medical research since it was started in the 1950’s.  It was the first cell line to be established that continued to grow this way.  There are many more cancer cell lines now, but HeLa was the first.

Okay, how does this relate to superheroes and superpowers?  It seems that just recently HeLa cells were found to contain genetic material from one of the papilloma viruses known to cause cancer.  This means that Ms. Lacks was infected with that virus, and one or a few particles of the virus got into one of her cervical cells (probably just one cell) and caused it to become cancerous.  Scientists call this transformation.  The cell was transformed by the virus and it began to grow.  This transformation is one sort of mutation, and it gave to that one cell and to all of that cell’s descendants the ability to grow not only in the body but outside as well, in effect, in perpetuity.   To put that in perspective, remember that normal human cells do not have that ability.  It doesn’t matter what cells–liver, kidney, lung, heart, blood, whatever–they can’t grow well in a petri dish outside the body.  They can grow for a short time, but will peter out and die after a while.  Long-term growth is impossible.  Yet HeLa cells can.  And really well, too.  They’ll grow almost anywhere, given a sufficiently nutritious medium to keep them alive.

So, here we have a real example of human cells given a superpower through mutation, the ability to do something that normal cells can’t.  But, you may be asking now, have HeLa cells ever saved a life?  Have they used their superpower for good?  Have they fought evil?  The answer is yes, at least indirectly.  HeLa cells have been used in so many experiments over the past sixty years it’s impossible to count, and I don’t want to even try to estimate.  Many important medical breakthroughs have been found using these cells, breakthroughs that have saved many lives.  HeLa cells haven’t just sat around in a petri dish waiting for something to happen.  They went out and conquered disease.

A mutant superhero who actually exists in today’s world?  This isn’t science fiction.  Who would’ve thought it was possible?

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Visitors From The Great Beyond

Two of the most common literary devices that science fiction authors use to give their stories a real “science fiction” feel are time travel and faster-than-light travel.  We sci-fi writers do that to get our characters around the hugely time-consuming task of traveling the galaxy.  Even at the speed of light, a spaceship would take over four years just to get to the star-system nearest Earth.  That’s too much time to waste, so a spaceship that can travel faster than light (“warp drive” or “Lightspeed” or some other convention) is usually invoked to speed the plot along.  We really can’t travel faster than light, at least not according to Einstein, and neither can we travel forward or backward in time, though it can be used to good effect in a story.  See H.G. Wells The Time Machine, for example.

But I’ve heard that time travel and faster-than-light travel may actually be possible in the future.  Perhaps our science hasn’t advanced far enough to understand how it could be possible.  If this is true, it brings up a curious paradox.  Surely out there in all those billions of stars in our own galaxy, there must be a civilization far more advanced than us.  That is, a people who can travel in time.  I’d love to meet them.  But, if they can travel in time, why haven’t they visited us here?  Why, if time travel is really possible, haven’t we seen some indication of it by now?  Are there really people out there who can travel back in time and drop in and say hello?

Of course, if time travelers are really visiting us, they may be so good at hiding among us we just haven’t seen them.  There are people on Earth now who claim to have been taken aboard alien spacecraft and lived among them and been dissected or interrogated, but their stories have never been rigorously confirmed.  To date, there is no credible evidence of visitors from beyond our planet, Roswell, UFO’s and Area 51 notwithstanding.  I emphasize “credible.”

Are they really there?  Or not?  If they are really there and are capable of visiting us any time they want, why not drop in for a visit?  The fact they haven’t could indicate that time travel just isn’t possible at all.  That’s one possibility, but I have a different take on this.  The fact that we don’t have any good evidence they have visited us could be an indication that they don’t want to visit us.  Any civilization sophisticated enough to travel in time or travel beyond the speed of light might just be so sophisticated they’ve eliminated disease, hunger, and warfare as well, and just don’t want to put up with a planet that hasn’t.  Why would they come to a planet where one country invades another on the basis of racial purity, or because it wants to impose its style of government on another?  Why would they visit a world where the inhabitants plant bombs for the sole purpose of terrorizing others?  Or fly airplanes into buildings for the main purpose of killing some people they don’t like?  Or lets its environment go when it could easily do something about it?  I could give hundreds of more examples, but you get the point.  They might be so disgusted with us they’ve blown us off.  Perhaps there are civilizations out there waiting for us to learn to live together, to live within our own sphere, to exist together without rancor and distrust.  Maybe then they will invite us to join a real Brotherhood of Planets.

Well, they’ve got a long wait ahead of them.  But stop and think about it.  Would you visit a planet as dysfunctional as ours?

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The Non-Human Hero

This past April I attended the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs with the main purpose of pitching my science-fiction novel to an agent.  In particular, to a New York based agent.  Secondarily, of course, I took advantage of the courses and talks that were presented by many others at the conference: writers, agents, publishers, and so forth.  But what I’m most interested in commenting on in this posting is a comment that the agent made during my ten-minute pitch.  (I’m not identifying the agent by name because I don’t have that person’s permission to use his/her name in a blog, and I will refer to him/her simply as “he” as a matter of convenience.)  The agent expressed some hesitation to take on my novel because, he said, the characters are not human.  That is, they don’t come from the planet Earth.

That comment got me to thinking.  It’s true that the protagonists of many sci-fi novels are “human” and have their origins on Earth.  A few popular examples: Harry Potter is human, though he’s endowed with extra powers; the predecessors of the characters of the Dune books originally came from Earth; and the characters of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey either journeyed from Earth toward Jupiter or were responsible for sending them on their way.  Spiderman, too, is human, transformed by the bite of a radioactive spider.  I could name more, and I’m sure you could too.

But just because the protagonists of a book don’t come from Earth doesn’t mean that those types of books aren’t out there.  I can also list a few books and movies and television shows whose heroes (and bad guys too) come from other planets.  Star Wars comes immediately to mind.  All Star Wars movies begin with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away.”  So all the characters portrayed by human actors on the screen such as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and so forth, are all really non-human since they couldn’t possibly have come from Earth.  (Interestingly, Star Wars is one of the few sci-fi tales that do take place outside our galaxy.  Most, including mine, take place within the Milky Way Galaxy.)

Superman is another character who isn’t really human.  He comes from the planet Krypton, sent to Earth in a space-going pod by his parents to land on a farm in Kansas.  I’ve always found it interesting that no one, at least to my knowledge, has ever commented on the great incongruity of humanity and fiction when the Kent family opened that pod and found within it a human–for all intents and purposes–baby.  (I’ve always wondered what the pediatrician thought when he tried to do a finger-stick to draw a little blood on the young Clark Kent to do a blood count.)  Yet we willingly accept Superman as a legitimate hero, and read and consume all the Superman stories voraciously.

The inhabitants of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth aren’t really human either, because they inhabit a place that, while it’s similar to Earth, is really a different place entirely.  Strictly speaking, the Hobbits aren’t human.

The characters of Battlestar Galactica aren’t human because they’re actually looking for Earth.  I haven’t seen the latest television series because I don’t have cable, but I saw the original series in the 1970’s.  As I recall, they never found it.

So, this has been a list of a few sci-fi stories whose characters are not human, though they look, act, and sound like humans, and may be portrayed by humans on the screen.  I’m sure there are more. and it might be fun to try to think of some.  Most sci-fi is human-based and human-oriented, but exceptions do exist.

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Flops

Over the past several months we’ve been treated to several movies whose premiere was not what the movie makers wanted it to be.  That is to say, the movie didn’t bring in as much money as expected and the reviews were poor and the potential audiences stayed away in droves.  Some movies were, basically, a total bust.  Movies such as The Lone Ranger and more recently, Wolverine, have been listed as flops.  Why this should be so after the movie houses put hundreds of millions of dollars into making the movie, I don’t know.  I can speculate, though, and I wonder if it’s due to the concept of special effects.  So many movies, especially science fiction movies, are loaded with computer-generated special effects, and personally I feel that many times they detract from the story.  My favorite example is the two Star Wars trilogies.  I say two trilogies because the movies were made in two sets of three each.  The first set, now numbered 4, 5, and 6, had relatively few special effects.  Back in the 70’s and 80’s when these movies were made, computers couldn’t do special effects as well as they can now, and movie makers had to rely on actors and set designers and make-up artists to create otherworldly situations.  If they wanted a monster, they had to design it from the ground up and make it and get an actor to play it.  Chewbacca and R2-D2 and some of the members of the Cantina scene come to mind.

Now, though, if the producers want a monster, they get someone to design it on a computer.  Likewise explosions and spaceships and flying superheroes and all sorts of other splashy screen doodads that were beyond the ability of movie makers of the recent past.  Yet, I liked the first trilogy of Star Wars movies better than the second.  The first three were cleaner, in the sense that there wasn’t as much going on in the background to distract from the advancement of the plot.  Special effects can be spectacular and are what movies do best.  But movies grew up and left Thomas Edison’s first studio and became popular because they told a good story.  A story exists to relay a human truth to the viewer (or reader if the story is written), and movies should never lose sight of that fact.  Dropping in special effects because they dazzle the viewers isn’t going to do anything for the story.  The story has to be there; special effects won’t carry it alone.

I don’t know what made The Lone Ranger and Wolverine flop at the box office because I haven’t seen them yet.  I’ll wait until they come out on DVD or on a movie channel.  But I do know that special effects aren’t going to be the save-all for bad movies, and overloading a movie with special effects won’t take the attention away from a bad script.  Story is the important thing.  Story–story–story.  It’s the plot that carries the movie and the message.  Everything else is secondary.

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