Chemistry: Part 4

Even though my life didn’t get immediately stranger as a result, the “national discussion” of the problem got heated. Some people hailed the unnamed leaker as a hero standing up against the potential for government tyranny. Other people described the person as a traitor who had endangered national security out of misguided idealism.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had a consistent party line.

A lot of stations showed footage of the damage caused by Red Lightning’s gangs during the 1960’s. More than one hero died fighting them and the fights were savage, particularly near the end. One documentary showed my grandfather punching a gang member in the throat. The guy had been throwing gouts of fire at Night Wolf, but I still found it strange to see my grandfather, a man who I most easily imagined tinkering quietly in his lab, punching anyone like that.

I turned off the TV in the family room and went upstairs to read in my bedroom.

The next day I walked into Mr. Beacham’s U.S. History class to find out that he’d moved up the “Superheroes vs. the Constitution” lecture from the last week of class to today. Mr. Beacham was in his late twenties, one of the younger teachers. I’d heard around the school that he’d been some kind of environmental activist during college.

Along with the expected maps and pictures of dead presidents, he’d decorated his room with pictures of people in old political movements from Free Silver Movement to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Panthers.

A poster with the words of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech hung on the wall next to the chalkboard.

“Welcome everyone to the greatest show on earth — U.S. history class. Today we’ll be talking about one of the stranger social trends of the last century — the urge to dress up in tight clothing and fight crime.”

He traced the development of superheroes from the 1920’s and 1930’s when they first appeared up to the present. The earliest heroes mostly faced mobsters and didn’t have especially impressive powers. Really powerful people didn’t surface until World War 2 when governments all over the world recruited them to fight.

“Change really started in the 1950’s when everybody came home and started adjusting to civilian life. That’s when society discovered that not every powered person had joined the war effort. Thanks to Red Lighting, we discovered in the 1960’s that the powered people we knew about were the tip of the iceberg, and that’s of course when all of us who weren’t powered basically gave up.”

The faces of the people around me showed at least as much confusion as I felt.

“Before the 1960’s vigilante justice was illegal. After Red Lightning’s Army showed the police that they had little chance against metahumans, people stopped enforcing those laws. Now they’re only enforced when a hero goes over the line and often not even then. Supers can collect evidence and pass it on to police and they don’t have to follow the rules police follow. They can break into any house or business, and, so long as they come out with evidence, no one cares. They can beat up another citizen, justly or not, and we can’t put them in jail because we don’t know their names. Even when the hero has a public identity, we don’t do it because we lack the nerve. They’re too powerful, we say. They protect us from people that are even worse, we say. Most of the time they hurt the right people, we say. And when they don’t, well, we tell ourselves that they make mistakes too.

“What I’ve found interesting about it all is this. We’re a country that’s founded on the idea that all people are created equal, but, we’ve handed off some of the tools of the state to a class of warriors that inherits their powers. It smells strongly of feudalism to me.”

I raised my hand. “Not everybody inherits powers. Some heroes don’t have them.”

“A good point, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. Besides when you compare our local hero, the Rocket, to someone like Guardian who can literally teleport you into the sun, it’s easy to tell who’s the most powerful, and thus who’s really going to set the tone.”

I raised my hand again. “You could argue though, that the Rocket is only limited by his imagination whereas they’re limited by their powers.”

He shrugged, “But people like the Rocket are an exception. They’re not normal either. It’s the difference between being born into wealth and earning it. In the end, the Rocket’s more similar to people with powers than he is to people without them.”

He broke us up into groups and had us talk about the pros and cons of having superheroes, asking questions like, “Are superheroes an arm of the state? Should they be? How do their unofficial law enforcement powers affect the Bill of Rights?”

From the reputation the lecture had, I had expected to walk out with my mind blown, questioning whether or not anyone had the right to put on a costume. I tried to classify my response, but found I didn’t have much of one. It didn’t seem relevant because I didn’t feel much like a feudal lord.

On the other hand, thinking about Alex, I could almost see Mr. Beacham’s point. The Southern California Defenders did seem a little distant from normal life, but I wasn’t sure whether powers or wealth played a bigger role in that.

Seeing my grandfather punch that guy in the throat bothered me more than the lecture.

* * *

Keith caught me at the end of the day. I’d stuffed my backpack full of books and started walking down the hall toward the stairs.

“Guess what I have?”

He seemed more excited than I wanted to see, but didn’t seem to be carrying anything larger than a backpack and his trombone.

“I don’t know. Did you buy one of Guardian’s used costumes?”

“I wish. He sold one on Ebay once and it went for more than twenty thousand.”

“OK. I don’t know.”

“I brewed up a batch of the stuff that tests whether you have powers. It’s in my backpack. It was a piece of cake.”

“Seriously? What about the ingredients?”

“My uncle’s a chemist and since it’s not illegal, he got the ingredients.”

“Wait, he helped you?”

“Oh yeah. He tried the stuff himself. Me too. Do you want to? I’m getting people together.”

15 thoughts on “Chemistry: Part 4”

  1. Wow, Jim. This is, quite possibly, your best episode EVER. Not only does it have one of my favourite kinds of scenes — the lecture from a thought-provoking teacher who addresses moral/ethical issues pertinent to the overall theme of the story — but it also switches all nice-and-innocent-like into a simple dialogue sequence that drops a moral/ethical bomb in our laps for a cliff-hanger. And as a bonus, you threw in the first-person-being-an-idiot-and-showing-his-prejudices bit with Nick asking questions in the lecture, so that we could both see how human Nick really is and also smile slyly because we’re in on the joke when none of the other characters could possibly be.

    Like I said: wow.


  2. Thanks. I was kind of nervous about it for exactly the same reasons you liked it.

    While I’ve enjoyed scenes with lectures in them, I’ve also sometimes run across ones that went on much longer than they needed to.

  3. I think you did well with the lecture, not to long to be boring and he had enough energy to keep the class (us) occupied.

    Now I wonder if Nick has his own powers, that would be kinda cool. But then I wouldn’t even have a guess at what they would be.

  4. For my money the Christmas party shoot-out with the Executioner was the best episode EVAH! for me. But this one is up there.

    That cliffhanger was just….oh, damn. It has truly hit the fan.

    I hope that the next food fight in the cafeteria doesn’t turn into a superpower duel. That would suck.

  5. speaking as a geek, the way Nick zones out into a creative tinkering fugue definitely counts as a power. heck, if i remember previous episodes right, him and his granddad each managed to keep their suit design twenty years ahead of whatever R&D team the FBI had put on it — that’s not just genius, that’s something else.

  6. I also really liked this episode. I wish we could have delved a little more thoroughly into the issues Mr. Beacham raised. It seems pretty clear that he feels supers (to use a term from the incredibles) undermine American democracy. Since he is bringing this up now he obviously thinks current events affect this. Would he take the power juice? Does he think that everyone should have powers to balance the equation? Any way you slice it is interesting stuff. That is one of the things I really, really, like about your story Jim. It is very intelligent and realistic, instead of just handsome good guy smashes ugly bad guy type stuff. Your work has so much depth to it, which is why I enjoy it so much.

  7. Actually, Thomas, it seems to me that the teacher (and by extension, the author) is really complaining that the canonical actions of superheroes (i.e. as portrayed in the modern narratives) are indicative of a government that has turned a blind eye to the abuses of freedom that such actions imply. This is really about Jim complaining that too many authors of superheroic fiction have been waaaayyy too lazy in considering the ramifications of their characters’ behaviours in the greater context of their worlds as it relates to the everyday nitty-gritty of morality and ethics. Taking it one step further, it also seems to be a bit of a complaint about the lack of ethical maturity and depth in the typical consumer of the genre, that they would accept these behaviours so blindly, while still being so deeply enthralled by the context in which they occur.

    Because, really, how much of the typical SHF produced in the last 5 decades has any more artistic merit than Britney Spears or “Mr. Sandman”?

    BTW – Don’t get me wrong — I’m almost as guilty as the rest of the fanboys and girls. And I also rather enjoy listening to the better recordings of “Mr. Sandman”. But that doesn’t mean I find either more than distracting fluff. 😛

  8. Also, I imagine Mr. Beacham would rather the American government put some genuine, considered thought into the problem, instead of just leaving things the way they fall, hoping that the current balance will be maintained. Most intelligent activists don’t necessarily want radical change; rather, they just want the government to take its head out of the sand.


  9. Daymon: Thanks. I’m glad it worked for people.

    Thomas: The issues definitely aren’t gone and neither is Mr. Beacham. Both will show up in what follows.

    Hg: I don’t feel like I’m complaining about problems so much as commenting on the genre. In some ways, the genre doesn’t have to take the social implications into account because it’s often all about the personal ramifications of having the powers of a god. That’s what appeals to people about it and that’s okay.

    At the same time, I can’t help but notice that the social ramifications are missing and I want to reflect that.

    For what it’s worth, my dad was a political science professor until his recent retirement. Thus I grew up with history and law and similar things all around me.

  10. Oh, my bad. Honestly, when I used the word “complaining”, the connotation I meant was more along the lines of “commenting”. I’ve never really pegged you as a complainer.


  11. No problem. I didn’t really think you were, but I can’t quite manage to avoid making small corrections like that if it’s there.

  12. …But what of citizen’s arrest? Or the Good Samaritan laws?
    People forget that the purpose of the Constitution was to enumerate the limitations of the Government, and to reassert the reservations of rights and powers to the individual states or the populace at large… among those rights being such as the right to self defense (and the unspoken concordant moral responsibility, the responsibility, of our own free will and conscience, to aid those in need or peril.) In essence the Constitution being a documentation of our Freedom is also a documentation of our responsibility, each and every one of us individually, for the protection and preservation of our society….. that we cannot simply “leave it to the government” to handle things, that we in fact SHOULD not….. that our responsibility as citizens is more than just to call someone with a badge of office and then stand idly by. We are only as free as we are willing to do for ourselves and for each other.

    Were people with superpowers to exist, the subjugation of those fortunately gifted citizens to the bureaucracy of the State would spell the end of individual liberties, because it would be the beginning of the subjugation of the most basic noble motivation— the motivation to help one’s neighbor of one’s own free will— to the stultifying and stifling incompetence of bureaucracy, and the furtherance of the government’s degradation to totalitarianism with a toxic influx of illicit power. It is a short step from a hypothetical Superhero Registration Act— all for your safety of course!— to making them, effectively, an arm of government brute power…. no longer a testament to the power of individualism, but an army of subjugated, super-powered slaves. And if it became legal to tag and collar anyone with an “excessive” amount of physical power, then it would not be long before they would do the same to anyone they deemed to have an “excessive” amount of intelligence, or “excessive” learning, or “excessive” wealth, or who was “excessively” outspoken…..

  13. I’m not all that wild about “superhuman registration acts.”

    Actually, I’m not advocating any particular course of action in this story. When I’m pointing out stuff like this, I’m interested in the “freedom vs. security” and “individual liberty vs. duty to the group” dynamics.

    In my view, it’s important to find a balance, and not to be content with the specific ways that balance is kept. New circumstances constantly change the weight than any given thing has, changing the balance even though the specific laws might not have changed…

  14. If I was a student in that class I think I would have a basic argument.
    “Sir, if I may I think the approach that supers are too powerful to police so everyone gave up is a flawed premise. The supers of the 50’s came because the police had been corrupted and bought by organized crime and everyone knew it. The feudalism had already set in. The only check to the system was something outside that system to correct the process. This continued into the 60’s as the government utilized police forces to force the citizenry to things it was against. The issues of segregation, the Vietnam war as just two such examples. The people’s trust of the government protection and law enforcement was at an all time low. And the super heroes got results. So new methods and laws were drafted around them. Otherwise the method of handling super villains would not be hero groups. But to enlist supers into law enforcement and use them with or like SWAT units. No need for super registration. Police have a super or supers on standby.”

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