Samit Basu’s new novel Turbulence explores what happens when everyone on a London-to-Delhi flight mysteriously acquires various superhuman abilities and how those new abilities play out in the real world once they land in India.
In this exclusive piece for Military.com, Basu reflects on how superhuman abilities might impact military culture and asks our readers some interesting questions about what the real-world costs and benefits might be. Check out his questions and offer up your answers in the comments below.
By Samit Basu
One of the most iconic images in comic-book history is from World War II-era America: Captain America uppercutting Hitler right in the face. It says so much about what superheroes were at the time, about the role they played in rousing public sentiment, in depicting the moods of readers of the time, and how they tapped into the memories of super-soldier heroes that we’d all read about, heard or seen in early childhood.
Wherever in the world you’re from, chances are that some of the earliest stories you’ve heard or read or seen have been stories of legendary heroes. Folktales, myths and legends, religious stories, supherhero comics, histories, films, cartoons, TV shows – larger-than-life characters real and fictitious have been a part of every generation’s earliest memories. And because the history of mankind is what it is, a lot of these stories have been about conflict, war, overcoming terrible odds to win in the end. As long as there have been heroes, there have been things for them to fight for, enemies and friends locked in combat.
But times have changed now, and we live in an interconnected and complex world where drawing clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong, isn’t as straightforward a process as it used to be for our grandparents. Superhero stories, too, have moved from the clear-eyed, xenophobic morality tales to grand circuses featuring flawed, interesting and inward-looking heroes. It’s a high-definition Blu-ray world now, not pencil on paper. It’s no longer great, as it once was, to have your hero be responsible for the deaths of untold thousands: the ages where people looked up to military heroes like Alexander, Caesar and Genghis Khan are now long gone.
But even today, the idea of the soldier-hero, the military superpower as both conqueror and protector, is one that still thrives in stories everywhere, whether those stories are about the dangers of too much power or one-man armies protecting the weak. There are several superhero comics that deal with the many difficult questions related to how real-world superheroes would fit into military plans: I’d recommend Supreme Power, The Authority, and Supergods. It’s a very believable scenario: a superhuman, whether developed by science in the form of genetic augmentation or bio-enhancements, or by some supernatural outside-science phenomenon (take your pick from the many superhero origin stories available) would be an incredible military asset. If our world discovered the technology or any other means to develop superhuman warriors, the contest to build super-armies would make the nuclear race seem like child’s play. We’re already in a world where many military weapons are human-free death-dealing equipment, drones and robots and other things we don’t know about: superhuman availability would change that scenario completely.
Every country’s legends tell us of mighty warriors endowed with demi-god strength, heroes and villains who almost single-handedly destroyed armies, slew monsters and performed incredible feats of strength. Superhero comics are just a 20th-century retelling of a tale as old as humanity. Imagine that in real life. It’s not pretty.
When I set out, a few years ago, to write a stories of superhumans in the real world, here and now, one of my biggest concerns was about dealing with the military aspect of it. My novel, Turbulence, is about a few hundred people who acquire strange physical abilities owing to an unexplained event on a flight between Delhi and London: each now possesses a superhuman ability that’s related to his or her innermost desire. A smart, drifting geek turns into a communications demigod. An aspiring Bollywood actress finds she’s universally loved. A lot of people get perfect bodies, higher incomes and fashionable handbags… and feel cheated.
Two of the key characters on this flight, though, represent the different ways the military mind might deal with this situation. The first character we meet in Turbulence is Vir, a third-generation Air Force officer who finds he now has the ability to fly. His commander officer, Jai, is a man who ends up becoming, through circumstances that aren’t all his fault, the central villain of the story. Jai is a career military man whose only dream is to become the ultimate soldier: indestructible, unbeatable, immortal. Through their powers, Vir and Jai both learn several harsh truths about the world, their army and their country. Through them, we see what military men might do with superpowers. While the physical challenges they face through the story are enormous, the key questions are ethical ethical and moral issues they have to deal with.
As someone with no real-life military experience whatsoever, I’m fascinated by the opportunities that writing this presents, especially for a large military Internet site. Instead of dwelling on these issues myself, I’d be honoured to have an insight into what the military minds reading this feel about these issues. So here are some of the dilemmas Vir and Jai face.
- In a world where some people have superpowers, do the old rules of armies and countries apply or would we be on the brink of a world ruled and dominated by supersoldiers? Would superhumans be able to follow the chain of command or would they start thinking of other superhumans as their compatriots?
- Would human commanding officers be able to manage, control and effectively utilize superhuman soldiers or would their insecurities cause them to shelve these projects?
- Would we see the dawn of a superhuman arms race or would the presence of a few superhumans act as an effective deterrent?
- The very idea of a superhuman is based on the principle of some people being superior to others. A lot of history’s greatest villains will live on in eternal infamy because of their belief in this very principle. Is it then fundamentally wrong to even try to develop superhumans?
- Is a battle between a superhuman military force and a human one any different from any other battle between an army with superior resources and technology and another with inferior equipment and training?
- Do you think the public at large would Initially be thrilled by the idea of initially benevolent superhuman rulers?
- In parts of the developing world that need fundamental change before their citizens can aspire to the same living standards as those in the developed world, do you think it is fundamentally wrong to use superhumans as military assets instead of using their incredible abilities for improving the lives of civilians?
- If superhumans are developed by the military, do they then belong to the military? What are the rights and responsibilities of these soldiers?
- How would the rest of the world, especially military commanders, react to the news of superhuman development in a relatively underdeveloped country?
- Is there any effective means of superpower deterrent by humans? Assuming there is no really effective physical one, could a human political process work?
To see how Vir and Jai deal with these issues, well, you’ll have to read the book, but regardless I’d love to see your responses to these questions. I try and find an answer to these in the book, and even more in the sequel, Resistance, which is set in 2020 in a world that’s dominated by superhumans and actually has a bit of a super-arms race going on. That’s out in the US next year.
Samit Basu writes books, films and comics. “Turbulence” won a WIRED Goldenbot Award when it was published in the UK in 2012. The novel is now available here in the US. You can visit Samit’s website, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.