Monday, 10 February 2014

XAA #2: "The Gift (Part II)"

("Can the panel imagine what it might be like to have no imagination?")


Suddenly everything becomes clear.

When last we met our temporarily-allied pair of super-teams, they had traced Scott Summers, his wife Madelyne, and a group of scientists to the Arctic Circle, where the erstwhile Cyclops and co had unearthed a mystical shaft of light that transforms humans into super-beings with snazzy powers that could potentially improve the world. The suggestion of what this new group of socially-conscious quasi-gods could accomplish took priority over exactly who had created this phenomenon, and why.

Given Loki's presence in the last issue, this should probably not have been a mystery.  My defence on not immediately making the link is that the shaft of light (or at least its effects) appeared in XAA #1 before Loki's announcement that he would help the world, which strikes me as a bit of a cheat now we know he created the light following that decision.  Still, who knows how time works in meta-Valhalla. It does at least result in the awesome idea of a Norse village buried beneath the Arctic ice; British Northerners will know what I mean when I say it summoned childhood memories of Jorvik as Kitty, Rachel, and Talisman explore its long-dead halls.

All is not well above with our new overlords, however.  Anodyne - as Madelyne has taken to calling herself - may be able to cure any sickness, but somehow that doesn't extend to helping Shaman, who is now close to death.  Two more of the newly-promoted super-beings offer to help Wolverine find Snowbird before she dies, but despite their powers at tracking and animal control, the search somehow turns up empty. Once the X-Men realise Wolverine was duped, the whole sorry story comes tumbling out: the drawback of the beam of light is that the creations and wielders of magic cannot survive its proximity.

This throws up a new wrinkle in the philosophical mine-field Claremont set up last issue, and produces a genuinely fascinating problem.  In the last issue it was suggested that exposing the world to the shaft of light would remove anti-mutant bigotry because everyone would essentially be a mutant, and because the resulting super-race would no longer lack for anything, which presumably would mean people would be less inclined to beat each other up. I noted in my previous post how unpersuasive I thought this was, but now the goalposts have shifted a little.  Now anti-mutant sentiment is on the back burner, and the question before us is this one: if we can create a system whereby food, clothing, and housing can be generated in infinite amounts at no cost or effort, is that not worth the lives of a tiny subset of the population?

And the subset must indeed be tiny, because it is still possible for even superheroes like Tony Stark of Hank McCoy, who spend much of their time around people with links to the mystical, to reject the idea magic even exists. Yes, some of that can be attributed to ideological blinkers, but their dismissal suggests a phenomenon rare enough for them to brush off, rather than feel compelled to take apart to figure out what's "really" going on. It certainly seems like magic users are rarer even than mutants in the Marvel Universe, which means, what? One in a million? One in ten million?  We could be arguing here over whether infinite shelter and nourishment for humanity would be worth the cost of fewer than a thousand lives across the globe. The Ethiopia famine which took place in the mid '80s cost over four hundred times that number of human lives. Is the loss of our magic users too high a price to prevent that from ever happening again?

We can't really go any further into picking apart this hypothetical question without noting how much it misses the point.  The reason famine claims so many lives is not that humanity lacks the resources to feed itself; it's that the people with the resources don't have any interest in doing so.  We may indeed come to a point where humanity genuinely is too widespread for the planet to support us, but we're not there yet. Consider the shitstorm thrown up in the UK just recently over the idea that people should be prosecuted for taking food from supermarket bins. For a depressingly high number of people, it's more important people should continue to own food they no longer intend to eat or sell than people who need that food can get at it.  The idea that this can be solved if food becomes easier and cheaper to create is a tempting one, but it assumes that access to the magical light that can create such walking replicators would be available equally to all countries and all social classes, which is simply ludicrous.  Fifteen minutes after Summers revealed his secret in the Arctic, the world would be at war over who gets to become enlightened post-humans first (Joe Haldeman explored this idea in his novel Forever Peace, which basically posits the idea that countries who do not control such miraculous technology would rather war against those who do than simply sit and wait patiently for their technologically advanced neighbours to deign to notice their problems).

So as an actual solution, it seems to obviously fall short. That said, there might be other ways to help it work.  Between them, the X-Men, Alpha Flight and those on Madelyne's flight might well be able to recruit people from every country to go through the light, keeping the results secret until it was too late to stop everywhere in the world becoming a paradise simultaneously. I find myself particularly attracted to the idea that the easiest way to do this would be to recruit the very types of people the authorities wouldn't even notice going missing, which keeps the secret safe and ensures the people recruited understand precisely what it is they are fighting to end.

It's at least a plausible solution, I think, enough to give the moral considerations under all this some teeth. If we could guarantee the plan would work (and the point at which the body count kicks in would be the point at which it's too far advanced to stop, I would think), is it worth the cost?

This is, of course, an age-old moral stumper.  If you could press a button to save a thousand people at the cost of one life, would you do it?  This situation is a little different, however.  Scott and Madelyne and their colleagues have already decided to push the button.  The question for the X-Men and Alpha Flight is whether they should actively block the button.  The pusher has to decide whether she has the moral authority to kill someone for utilitarian reasons.  The blocker has to decide whether its better a thousand people die than anyone be allowed to make that decision at all.

I don't feel remotely qualified to talk about what the potential blocker should do here.  The most practical argument might be to point out the blocker may have to kill the pusher in order to save one life at the cost of one thousand, which seems a fairly crappy trade.  Anything more than that, and my brain starts to rebel. I suppose that given this refusal to pick a side I run the risk of looking cowardly when picking apart other arguments on the subject, but then one needn't have an answer oneself to know when other answers are terrible.

That said, there's really only two arguments here I really dislike.  The first is Kitty's. When Peter announces he will stand with Scott, he says it's because his time as a peasant farmer in the USSR has persuaded him humanity needs saving, even if that requires the sacrifice of life (years later, we will discover he is more than willing to put his life where his mouth is).  Kitty's response is to insist he thinks about the specific people he's talking about; Snowbird and Shaman, Doctor Strange, his own sister. I can completely understand someone thinking like this - I'm not taking a pop at Claremont himself here - but this is disgraceful. Arguing no-one has the right to kill x number of people to save 10 000 times that number has a moral underpinning I can at least process.  Arguing the decision should be swayed because you don't know any of the lives you'd be saving causes me great problems, for reasons which I assume are entirely obvious.

Once everyone has made their choice, and battle-lines have been drawn, it's time for our heroes to beat on each other. It's kind of like a proto-Civil War, only over an issue that you can genuinely imagine dividing the heroic community, rather than Millar's attempt, in which it's almost impossible to credit Iron Man getting more than three or four people to sign up to his "Be Dicks For America!" tour.

The thing is, though, this puts Claremont in something of a bind.  It's clear the button will never be pressed, for editorial reasons as much as narrative ones. If this fight produces a KO, it's obvious who will be left bleeding on the mat. Sensible people can disagree about how much fun it is to watch heroes tear strips out of each other (I personally love it), but with the outcome in no doubt, the appeal is noticeably lessened.

So Claremont takes the obvious way out; he injects new information that changes the formulation of the underlying disagreement.  Not only is proximity to the light fatal for magic users, but use of the light destroys the subject's capacity for imagination.

When Rachel discovers this, she announces "This changes everything!".  Um... why?

This is where my real frustration with this story lies.  The idea that the deaths of hundreds to save the lives of hundreds of thousands is treated as being worthy of consideration. The idea that the people who volunteer to help fix the world might not be able to draw neat pictures as a result is utterly beyond the pail.

I mean What. The. Fuck? How the hell can we possibly be comparing the ability to create with innocent lives, and suggesting the former is where our concerns should lie? I mean, yes, this again is an utterly false choice generated by Cyclops' ludicrous scheme to expose everyone to the light so that mutants aren't weird anymore (the script goes so far as to point out mutants would still be hated because only they can imagine, which given how completely terrible Scott is here at thinking outside the box strikes me as pretty ironic).  What we'd be talking about here is people who volunteer for exposure, despite knowing the cost to their webcomic or whatever, in order to help their fellow man.  How can we possibly view this as a greater cost than those who wake up one day to find their cool magic powers are now eating them from the inside out? And even if the whole world did have to give up imagination as an alternative to the creation of paradise on Earth, how is that so clearly a worse fate than an actual death toll?

(Indeed, one could actually put together some fascinating questions on this.  You stand in a room with two buttons before you.  If you refuse to push either button, one thousand people die.  Pushing one button will kill a random person.  Pushing the other button will remove every copy of every play by Shakespeare throughout the world.  Make your choice.)

Coming from anyone, this would be a difficult sentiment to swallow. Coming from a writer, it's close to unbearable. I'm sure Claremont considers having his imagination snatched from him a fate worse than death.  Let's not make the assumption that this sentiment extends worldwide.

Ultimately, all of this falls by the wayside when our protagonists learn Loki is behind all this.  Faced with full knowledge of how his largess has a tendency to bite, and with his petulant rage at being questioned over his gifts prompting him to attack everyone with Frost Giants, the conflict receives a swift and perfunctory resolution (the meta-Gods arrive at the last minute to save everyone, because at this point why not?).  All is quickly restored to the status quo, with our new quasi-gods becoming mortal once more, and Snowbird and Shaman recovering from the brink of death. The world is once again safe from the horrors of plentiful food and shelter.

What a victory.


This story takes place over the course of a few hours, starting at night and moving into the following day. It's stated that these events take place in midwinter, but Mac's death in early March would force this to be some ten months later, which completely fails to track with events in Alpha Flight.


Sunday 6th to Monday 7th May 1984.


X+6Y+66 to X+6Y+67.

Contemporary Events

Human rights abuser and murderer of civilians Jose Napoleon Duarte is elected as President of El Salvador. He was already the leader of the military force that took power in a 1979 coup d'etat. Inevitably, the US have been implicated in his rise to power.

Standout Line

"Humanity alone carries within itself the power to create paradise on Earth -- on its own terms, by its own efforst -- without the gifts of mechinations (sic) of greedy gods. Which, for better or worse, is how it should be."

Fuck right off. If you want to tell me the benefits of feeding and clothing the whole world isn't worth the death toll that deal requires, I will listen to you.  If you tell me that the actual receiving of that gift - that wonderful opportunity to make the world what it should be - is in itself bad because we should have to struggle to do it, you should be set on fire and hurled into a pit.  This is the exact same kind of vicious, thoughtless crap spewed by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and every other libertarian joker this world has ever vomited out.  The struggle is what matters. Giving people what they need makes them less liekly to try.  The lies the rich and successful tell themselves so they can believe the people less fortunate than they are not only deserve to be that way, but are better off because of it.

It is the reason things are the way they are. It is the reason these crooks can smile smugly on TV, when by rights they should spend every moment of their lives listening for the sound of sharpening guillotines.  It is the reason I will hate these people until my last breath.

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