On powers and limits. · 10:25pm
This is going to be a little ramble, inspired by This thread, and further ruminated during the week, in which a discussion with a friend eventually turned to the topic of certain superheroes.
I've come to realize something that, if it's not already, should probably be some kind of rule of writing, especially if you're going to write about some supernaturally gifted individual;
Any insufficiently limited power can destroy the world.
You've probably come across this scenario somewhere, in a story or a movie: The hero finds him/herself on the brink of defeat, an inch away from losing and letting the world be lost to the schemes of the villain; when, suddenly, they think of a new, clever way of using their power(s) and save the day.
But wouldn't that work anytime, with everything? Can't a little cleverness make any power infinitely more useful?
Mankind started with the power to grab things and some cleverness, and we're now capable of planting flags on the moon. Just think of what we could do with an actual superpower!
I'm reminded of an anecdote I once heard about the ice guy from Marvel's X-men; he can create ice, right? He was apparently mind-controlled or body-swapped or whatever once, and the person who ended up piloting his body (and his power) was a lot smarter than him, and found out that his power isn't just creating ice: it's apparently more like Energy transfer. To create his ice, he just draws all the heat away from the moisture in the air. But that power can be used for so many other things! It turns out that while in control of his body and by applying some actual brain juice, that other person was one of the most powerful mutants in the world, launching plasma and fireballs and lightning everywhere, jumping all over the place and just generally kicking everyone's ass. "Making ice" was just the first thing he figured out how to do with his power and stopped there instead of thinking about how his skills could be applied.
Marvel superfans could corroborate or debunk this anecdote, but the principle remains.
With limits, his power was making ice. Without limits, he was god.
Let's have a thought experiment here: Let's imagine a lame, apparently useless superpower.
Let's say you can turn no more than one cubic inch of metal into bubblegum, by touching it.
Sounds lame and useless, right?
Well, let's think about it; with that power, as stated above, you can already defeat most conventional weapons, and make most non-modern armor useless.
You can, if you manage to touch your opponent's weapon, make it useless. Turn the first inch of a sword's blade into gum; the guy is now just holding a slightly sticky handle. A flail? no more chain. Hammers would be your biggest problem, as you'd need to specifically target the point where the handle connects with the head to detach it, and even then the guy would still be left with a stick to beat you with.
If your opponent wears armor, just touch any spot you wish to stab, and the guy is left without protection. Even better: aim for the spots where the straps attach to the armor itself and unpants the guy. Turn a part of his helmet into gum, that'll be hours of fun unless he's bald! If he has a belt, touch the buckle and he loses it. If he's mounted, touch the stirrups, or the buckles of his saddle's straps, and so on.
You're faced with a door. It is locked. Ruin the hinges, or the lock, or the door itself if it's made of metal. Someone shackles you or otherwise tries to restrain you with anything but a simple rope? You can be free in minutes.
Any metal structure can be cripplingly weakened with enough time. Steel cables can be severed, important screws and bolts can be destroyed, pipes and vents can be made to burst or collapse.
That's a lot of uses for a useless power.
Let's take some of the limits off, shall we?
Let's say you can decide the exact shape of the bubblegummed section. Those metal structures I mentioned? Steel beams can be cut right through if you just decide that your cubic inch takes the form of a millimeter-wide slice. High-pressure pipes can become grenades if your inch of metal takes the form of an ultra-thin mesh with "holes" where a multitude of metal squares remain intact.
Let's say your power can work instantly, just by thinking about it and touching the metal.
You are now mostly immune to bullets: as soon as they touch you, they become gum, basically turning into non-lethal rubber bullets. It'll hurt, but the chances of you outright dying from having bubblegum perforating your body are slim. Arrows are similarly hampered, although the shaft itself might still be a problem. A sword's edge is instantly dulled, a knife melts in a thug's hand. You can punch dudes right through their metal armor.
Let's say your power works at a distance; no more touching required.
You do not fear guns anymore; turn the chamber into gum and it'll explode in the guy's face, turn the firing mechanism and the weapon is useless, turn the bullets before they're even fired and the whole thing jams and fails to even shoot. Destroy internal components of any machine just by looking at them, crumble structures without being anywhere near them, wreck everything everywhere.
Let's say you can affect any metal ever, as decided by the periodic table of elements.
Nothing is safe from your bubblegum wrath; your enemy's riches? Gone. Legit, most modern chemical drugs that aren't straight-up mostly poison? Nah, brah. Wires, magnets, radioactive material? Poof. Someone's bones, severely weakened? Calcium is apparently a metal!
Let's say your godly bubblegum inch doesn't have to be contiguous: separate pieces of metal can be turned, as long as they don't make up more than one cubic inch.
All of the above, possible on powdered metal, shrapnel, several key pieces at once.
Now let's get really overpowered:
Let's say you can control your power on an atomic level: Alloys can be selectively transformed, leaving whatever metal intact.
Purify all the metals! Study up on chemistry to make things explode, burn, melt or bend however you want by changing the chemical make up of whatever you want. Take a handful of table salt, blow it in someone's face while turning all the sodium into gum, and watch them choke on a toxic cloud of chlorine!
If you combine this with the ability to do this at a distance and the ability to do this on non-contiguous atoms, do you have any idea how sick you can make someone? Turn all the metals in their body into gum! Severe magnesium deficiency! Severe iron deficiency! Severe zinc deficiency! The afore-mentioned sudden catastrophic calcium deficiency! You can probably just legitimately liquefy kill someone if you remove all the metals from their body, and that's not even counting the sudden overdose of bubblegum in their bloodstream and cells.
And now, let's remove the one limit I snuck in right at the beginning: Forget that cubic inch. You have no limit for how much metal you can turn at once.
The earth is fucked. Seriously. Take everything I mentioned above, and remove the range and quantity limit, and the earth is straight-up done for. let's go for broke and turn all the metal in the world into gum. You know the earth's core is made of iron, right? Nope, it's gum now. Furthermore, there's two ways this would go down; either your power gives lip service to the laws of physics and the end product keeps the mass of the primary material, or it doesn't.
If it keeps the mass, it means your bubblegum core will tend to occupy a much greater volume than what you started with. In that case, the planet explodes like an over-inflated balloon.
The alternative is not much better: if the end result keeps the same volume and the planet doesn't explode, it might just break apart anyway, because the core's mass would have been reduced dramatically by turning into gum. A much lower mass leaves us with a much lower gravitational pull, which would screw a whole lot of things. You know what the Earth's core also does? It maintains our magnetic field, that neat little thing that keeps our atmosphere from being blasted right off the surface of the planet by the sun's brutal rays.
So turning the entire world's metal into gum would poison, suffocate, melt and kill pretty much everything, and our final moments would be spent either watching the entire planet explode into a superheated mass of goo, or watching the whole world burn under the sun's barrage of fiery death and cosmic radiation.
Yeah, what a lame power, right?
So the next time you're designing a character and establishing their set of powers, make sure you think long and hard about giving them some very definitive limits, because if you can destroy the world by turning metal into bubblegum, just think about what your villain or hero could do with things like unlimited super-speed, weather control, or -god forbid- telekinesis.