How to become a superhero

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillia, an alternative history of World War II featuring superhuman Nazis and British WarlocksHow does one create a superhero? Movies such as The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man make it look straightforward, if not exactly easy. Hollywood would have us believe superpowers aren’t all that unusual. Perhaps I’m a skeptic, but I sometimes wonder if the difficulties in become superhuman aren’t underestimated just a bit.

After all, you can’t plan for a freak accident. You can’t plan on being bitten by a special arachnid, as was Spider-Man. You can’t plan to accidentally survive a massive dose of gamma radiation, like the Hulk. You can’t plan to be born of Asgard, like Thor. Most of us will never have the opportunity to volunteer for an experimental super-soldier program, as did Captain America.

But what about the self-made superheroes? Those who deliberately transcend their limitations, using technology and (frankly) vast piles of money? Well, as much as I’d like to become Iron Man, I’m not a supergenius billionaire industrialist with massive technological resources at my disposal. What about Batman? I’m out of luck there, too, because I’m not a reclusive borderline-sociopath multi-millionaire with the peak physical conditioning of a dozen Olympic athletes combined. It’s safe to say these paths are closed off to most people.

So what to do if you’re cash-strapped but can’t rely upon serendipity to do the hard work?

There is a third option: the “accidentally on purpose” superhero. Such was the origin of the superpowered agents of the Third Reich in Bitter Seeds (UK | ANZ).

Doctor von Westarp didn’t know what he would find when set out to combine his overly literal interpretation of Nietzsche with a rigorous scientific mindset. All he had was a deep-seated conviction that the transformative Will to Power lay dormant in all persons, plus an unshakeable trust in the scientific method. (They called him “mad” at university, you know.) And, thanks to a plentiful supply of orphans left over from World War I, he eventually succeeded in unlocking the limitless potential of human willpower.

All it took was 15 years of trial and error, some cranial electrodes, and some batteries. A bit like Thomas Edison experimenting with thousands of potential filaments for the light bulb, von Westarp experimented on dozens of test subjects, trying numerous variations of the electrodes, their placement, and the current they delivered. Much like those failed filaments, most of the children burned out quickly. But a precious handful survived to manifest unique and unexpected abilities.

Thus the supers of Bitter Seeds owe their powers to the combination of an innate quality — iron willpower — with technology: the wires embedded in their skulls. The wires are connected to batteries, which power feats of superhuman willpower until the charge is depleted.

All fantasy, obviously. Who could possibly believe connecting a battery to somebody’s head could give them heightened abilities?

Well, for starters, the U.S. military.

The technology is called Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (tDCS for short) and it’s been around for decades. But my first exposure to the concept came after I finished writing Bitter Seeds and its sequels, when somebody tipped me off to this article in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — is a research and development arm for the United States Department of Defense. Its mandate, put overly broadly, is to stay ahead of the technology curve and mine it for potential military applications. And now they’re funding tDCS research.

Why? Because of a rapidly growing body of research indicating that application of very mild direct currents to volunteers’ heads — in other words, and quite literally, connecting their heads to batteries — can improve their ability to learn and acquire new skills. Study after study indicates that it can sharpen mental focus and dramatically improve performance on complex tasks.

Mental focus? Complex tasks? Doesn’t that sound just a little bit like harnessing the Will to Power in order to walk through walls? It does to me.

But that’s not the only parallel between real-world tDCS research and the fictional work of Doctor von Westarp.

While writing Bitter Seeds, I decided the superpowers should come with a harmless but peculiar side effect. Something trivial yet so intractable that even the mad genius von Westarp cannot eradicate it. And thus when agents of the Götterelektrongruppe call upon their batteries — drawing external current into their minds to fly, summon fire, see the future, or walk through walls — their mouths instantly and inevitably fill with the taste of copper. (It seemed plausible when viewed from the perspective of a clumsy home hobbyist who has suffered more than a few electric shocks.)

But what about the real world? What happens when you strap a tDCS rig to your noggin and flip the switch? Here’s how Sally Adee, an editor for New Scientist, described the experience when she volunteered to undergo a bout of cranial stimulation:

Initially, there is a slight tingle, and suddenly my mouth tastes like I’ve just licked the inside of an aluminium can.

Chalk one up for blue-sky extrapolation.

Meanwhile, DARPA and the U.S. Army are reportedly using tDCS technology to train snipers. And that’s just the stuff they’re talking about. Because clearly they’re on the verge of creating superheroes. Sure, it’ll start small, with improvements to the speed and efficacy of military training. Then it’ll morph into a technology for enabling people to acquire brand-new skills at the drop of a hat. But the final phase of the project will combine tDCS with sheer undiluted human willpower to defy the laws of physics.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillia, an alternative history of World War II featuring superhuman Nazis and British WarlocksBest of all, if this link is to be believed, we don’t have to volunteer as DARPA test subjects to reap the benefits of tDCS. I can’t decide if this is a hoax, or an insidious social engineering experiment, or something else. But I hold out (thin) hope that it might be legitimate. What I wouldn’t give to transcend my human limitations. To become a superhero.

Because mark my words: they’re coming. And they’ll be wearing batteries.

Bitter Seeds (UK | ANZ) is released on 12th July 2012 and is available for pre-order now. Read a sample here.