by Mark Lawrence
It’s me again. Batter up. Once more into the blog fray. Yes, I’m just nibbling away at the word count while thinking desperately about what to write. I write my blog posts like my books – as I go.
I’m going to tackle that problem of that most elusive of superheroes: Realistic Physics Man (or Woman). Yes, I know it’s an old one, but I’ve checked to see that at least *I* haven’t blogged about it before.
Since I did my first degree in physics and have more than my fair share of pedantry running through my veins I’m going to take a moment to be that guy, and if not spoil everyone’s fun then at least make some fraction of you pause for thought the next time Superman, or indeed many of our Wild Cards aces, flex their muscles.
The conceit of Wild Cards and the great majority of other superhero fiction is that something has happened to gift (or curse) the individual we’re focusing on with super powers. Now, obviously, if I was going to moan about that then I may as well just get out now.
We accept the magic of the super power. That’s the most fundamental ingredient of the game. No matter how it’s delivered, be it radioactive spider, a slightly different wavelength of radiation, or an alien virus, it’s all the same – we take it onboard without a blink. And that’s fine with me.
The question is: where does the ‘magic’ / hocus science end? If a character is merely really really REALLY strong, does the magic end at their skin and in the rest of the world everything else is as it was? If a character’s magic extends out into the world, be it as fire bolts, or a hypnotic scent, or telekinesis … where in that interaction does the real world start to dominate?
Here’s what I’m talking about. We have expectations about the real world. Those expectations are based on physical reality. We expect a dropped bowl to fall, milk to flow, fire to be hot. For most of us those expectations are developed through observation. We have our own model for how the world around us behaves. When superheroes start throwing buildings around our model has little to say about what happens as we’ve not seen buildings being thrown around before. For those of us with a more formal education in mechanics, or indeed for any killjoy who wants to spend a few minutes thinking about it, the model extends further, and superheroes regularly stomp all over it.
Consider “the strongest man in the world”. In Wild Cards that title is held by Golden Boy. And to its credit the wiki says, “He can lift up to 40 tons, as long as he is properly braced.” I appreciate that ‘properly braced’. It’s not the whole story but it’s a good step in the right direction.
I’m going to replace Golden Boy with Mr Mighty so that I’m not levelling unresearched accusations at the golden wonder.
In so many stories and films the superhero – who we accept is very strong – grabs a truck, hefts it aloft and throws it. Of course, the arch villain Dr Physics would extend his evil aura to ensure that what really happens is that Mr Mighty’s super strong arms heft him aloft instead and he finds himself still holding the car but now with his feet off the ground … because the truck is much heavier than he is.
OK you say, but if he was properly braced it’d work!
But you didn’t reckon with the full reach of Dr Physics’s villainy.
What bit of the truck did Mr Mighty grab hold of? The door? The nearest wheel arch? The corner? He heaves with his mighty strength and … that bit breaks off in his hands, leaving the truck where it is.
OK you say, let’s have Mr Mighty chuck something more robust. How about a ship. Its hull is all one piece of metal.
Mr Mighty muscles up. Flexes. Literally digs his fingers into the metal so he has the absolute best grip possible … and heaves. Let’s assume the plates that make this hull up are so well riveted that it really is like one solid chunk of hull-shaped steel. What happens? What happens is that he tears free two handfuls of (now quite hot) steel and the ship stays where it is. On the scale of ship-tossing, steel is like plasticine. Mr Mighty is going to need to slide hands as big or bigger than tennis courts under this ship if he wants to pick it up and keep it from becoming a large collection of self-assembly ship parts.
Another of Dr Physics’s evil tricks is played on any superhero who is not invulnerable. Some super strong heroes, like Jessica Jones for example, are pretty much regular human level when it comes to being damaged. She can easily be cut by a knife. This is bad news when it comes to exercising her strength. She’s strong enough to break out of handcuffs with a flex, lift a car, and display other feats that not even Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime could come close to. But when Dr Physics turns his malign gaze her way suddenly Jessica is cutting herself to the bone with those cuffs before they break. Suddenly the flesh on her fingers is being squeezed away by the pressure she exerts on that block of stone. Next thing we know she’s breaking her own bones.
If you’ve not got the invulnerability to match your strength … you basically can’t use your strength. So either Mr Mighty is also mighty tough, or he’s going to have to be mighty careful.
Speed is another favourite super power and it’s one that Dr Physics can suck all the joy out of almost as rapidly as Ms Fast can run away.
It’s worth noting that speed is the most deadly of super powers. If you can move fast enough to effectively turn an opponent into a statue, you have to try really hard if you’re going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Consider: Your foe is a statue. You can have at their eyeball with a diamond tipped drill. You can drive a spear into any vital area at Mach 8 or whatever your top speed is. You can thread a tube up their nose and fill their lungs with the most toxic or corrosive gas.
Speedsters in films and fiction almost never make full use of their speed. I think this is just because the storytellers know that the problems would be solved very quickly (pun intended) and the story would be pretty dull. But the solution seems to be to ignore Ms Fast’s potential rather than not include a speedster.
Dr Physics steps us neatly around this problem of being overpowered by saying that it’s all nonsense anyhow. Dr Physics is playing the game. He has accepted that Ms Fast can move ridiculously fast. That’s fine.
The alarm goes out! Dr Physics is robbing the bank. Ms Fast responds. She tosses her book aside and accelerates towards the door at a mindboggling rate. Or rather her legs move very fast. The carpet shreds, the soles of her shoes vaporise, she starts digging a hole, but she’s really not going anywhere particularly rapidly because Newton’s third law has her in chains. To accelerate rapidly to the speed she’s capable of requires enormous force to be exerted on the floor and the floor just can’t take it. Her feet are white hot (let’s hope she’s invulnerable) but she’s just shredding the ground. Friction is insufficient to accelerate her at anything like the rate the TV shows us.
Let’s imagine she has a steel floor with thick grooves to push off though, and her flesh and bones are equally tough. Away she goes. Her clothes are left in shreds spiralling in the vortex behind her, but she’s off and speeding towards Dr Physics.
Friction has her skin hot enough to fry eggs or melt lead depending on how fast she’s going, but we’ll say she’s invulnerable. Unless it’s a grooved steel floor the whole way then her journey is going to be like she’s us running on an ice rink. Friction will be insufficient to let her turn any better than an ocean liner, but let’s say she has super eyesight and fortuitously doesn’t need to go round any corners. By planning ahead she avoids putting a hole through any traffic or pedestrians. Ha! Eat that, Dr Physics!
But what about the shockwave? What about that sonic boom? At a minimum she’s left a trail of deafened civilians and shattered windows behind her. Quite possibly she has liquified the internal organs of hundreds of people going quietly about their business.
Still, the bank’s being robbed and she’s here now. Time to stop. Ah. That pesky Dr Physics. He completes his robbery while Ms Fast is ploughing a mile long furrow in the ground, punching through buildings, tearing up roads, and killing hundreds more citizens with a spray of high speed debris.
And Dr Physics has only just started on the superhero movement. Fortunately for us, this blog post has reached its word count target, and we can pull a veil over the other indignities the good doctor has planned for aces all across the globe and beyond!