Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Monsters as Metaphor: Zombies

The monster has been with us for a long time. From the very start of stories the monster has been there; in Gilgamesh the wild man Enkidu is arguably the very first monster, though it is equally likely that he is only the first monster to have been written about. The same culture and those close to it, also gave us depictions of half man, half animal people, mostly famously as the gods of ancient Egypt. Tales of djinn and ghouls originated from the same region later on in later eras and arguably served as a crucible for myths and stories that spread across the globe.

But there are stories of monsters in every part of the world, heroic traditions that paint horrors into the darkness. A natural aspect of the human psyche mythologises things we do not understand, and for most of our history the night has been the great barrier. Seen as the harbourer of evil, it was the great unknown, where the Devil and his minions dwelt. This is the root of much of the antipathy directed towards cats and other nocturnal creatures too. Being comfortable in the night meant they must embrace a cosmological as well physical darkness. Frequently, modern narratives will use monster to make a point. werewolves, for example, are often used to illustrate parables about puberty or about war and conflict. Vampires, in the modern sense that began in literature with Polidori, have often been connected with predatory sexual behaviour, especially that of men. Dracula and Ruthven inhabit the same pattern, inspired by the exploits of Polidori’s employer, Lord Byron.

Vampires were not always portrayed this way. The Medieval version of the monster was much closer to the zombie, a corpse that digs its way out of the grave to feast upon blood. Whilst at face value this seems to be the same as the modern myth, it is worth remembering that this kind of vampire was seen as driven by its thirst; incapable of the plots and plans, and above suaveness of the various literary vampires. No violin playing here, nor even the powers and magic Dracula employs, just mindless ripping and rending to get to the blood. Just like today's zombies.

By contrast the zombie’s original Haitian form arose from fears of a Bokor, a Voudon priest that
follows the left handed or dark path of that tradition, raising the body of someone who had died and binding them into service. The real practice is believed to involve ingredients to bring on brain damage in the victim, whereupon they are stood in a grave and told they have returned from the dead and must obey the Bokor. This tradition does have its roots in African belief, in a way that much of the things associated with Voudon do not.  For instance, the Voodoo Doll is believed to have originated in European Christian attempts to smear West African beliefs; rather than find something new they fell back to the poppets of  Europe's Witchcraft. Somehow these were absorbed into Haitian belief. Part of me wonders if part of the original European vampire tradition did too.

Prior to Romero's films zombies made a small mark within cinema and culture. The most obvious example is White Zombie, but others did exist. The DC comics character Solomon Grundy most definitely qualifies, for all that he was raised by the magic of a place rather than the machinations of an evil sorcerer. It is probably fair to say that this was a small slice of culture before the 1960s however. Zombies may have flooded New Orleans with tourists trying to tap into the short-lived Voodoo craze of the 1930s, to the extent that genuine practitioners were driven underground, but even Bela Lugosi's presence could not generate sequels for White Zombie the way it could for Dracula.

It was not until the 1960s that the idea of the zombie as a creature of mass terror took off. Within horror, this may have been inspired by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, a piece that has certainly inspired the beginning of a number of apocalyptic stories, and where the strategy to deal with the foe is similar to the measures used to defeat zombies. Both rely on the idea that the horror derives from the sheer number of horrifying creatures, rather than the more Gothic exclusivity of the Voudon zombie. It is also an inhuman horror, almost turning the terrifying events into something out of human control to begin with. These were monsters for the age of mass production, even with the shadow of King Mob behind them.

Perhaps this has its root in the fear of Communism that drove George Lucas' films THX  1138 and Star Wars (where the Empire was a pretty obvious codicil for the USSR). There is a strong narrative too which suggests that Romero's films were tapping into the idea of consumerism. I can see the connection, there is something zombie like about trudging around shopping centres with nothing to do but buy things that aren't needed. This may be the root of Steampunk's fascination with the zombie too since the subculture has a somewhat confused relationship with Capitalism, both using and reviling it at the same time.

It's really only in the last decades that the zombie has become part of the cultural mainstream however. It would be foolish to deny that it is part of the Zeitgeist. We have zombie walks, running apps that keep you going by telling you zombies are after you. Zombie apocalypse media proliferates across our culture. Even Game of Thrones has the White Walkers, zombies in all, but name; whilst The Passage by Justin Cronin was lauded in literary circles as well as geek ones.

This suggests that the zombie touches something deep in our culture; but what? It has to be more than just a desire to see the shambling dead, though I grant you that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. 

My gut feeling is that it is in response to something in the world today. This might be my background as a social scientist, but to me it seems as if the world has grown steadily more panicked over the last fourteen years in an almost paradoxical fashion.

Perhaps it is a hangover from the Millennium, coupled with a sort of survivor's guilt that nothing happened (after all the predictions of the end of the world, the apocalypse has become something of a damp squib). Zombies may be a sort of panacea for that, allowing the fantasy of what we might do in such a situation. In America, where the zombie craze is bigger than in the UK, it may be tied to the survivalist culture and militias in general. The sort of people who pray for the Rapture. Could the zombie apocalypse tie into the idea that when the good and faithful have been taken up to heaven only zombies will be left? It seems to be something that is supported in the Left Behind books and in popular television series like the Walking Dead.

Outside of that context though, I am not sure it actually makes sense to view the phenomena through a religious context; though the metaphor of 'fear of the end of the world' holds if we expand our criteria away from the religious and into political and environmental areas. As our democracies become more like autocracies, the economy tanks, and the state of the environment worsens; the sense of control. The system judders on and nothing gets better. There's a sense of futility as the control we feel we should have over our lives slips.  The media report the slips and errors, but nothing changes. Could this relate to our desire for apocalypse? Do we simply want to kick over the system and start again?

Although we seldom think about it, humans have troops sizes, just like our close cousins the Chimpanzee and the Baboon. Whilst our brains aren’t as hardwired as theirs, we don’t chase someone out of our group when the maximum has been reached that’s largely because our troops are more ephemeral, they spread through a number of others, interlocking. Still, it is rare for us to truly know more than a region of 80 to 120 people – though our brains are easy to trick, so with social media we can appear to exceed the limit. Television can have the opposite effect, fictional characters can fill a troop slot, cutting us off from people. Perhaps though, this knowledge of how many people there are and the number of people we see all around us as our species becomes more urbanised and we have less and less space is kicking off a desire to remove the people we see as unworthy – the kid who plays his music loudly on the bus, the old woman who dodders down the street unaware or uncaring of the obstruction she causes. The supermarket cashier who seems to be in a world of their own. Crime is a factor too, it has become presented as a fait accompli, something we have to accept, that we cannot do anything to stop. Policing has changed to become smarter, but as a result, there are fewer visible officers, again adding to the feeling of the world being huge and uncaring. When a recent police force in the UK admitted that for small crimes the victims would be better off just investigating themselves because the force no longer had the manpower or resources to deal with smaller offences, surely it was a nail in the coffin of justice: another sign that King Mob is starting to get the upper hand.

Then too, there is the issue of the ‘script’, the story that we tell ourselves and that society spins out for us to understand the world by. It governs everything, from what we consider to be desirable in a mate to what is shunned and more. With regards to subcultures, the common story used to that there were dangerous loners and odd balls who would do horrible things. Columbine’s Trench Coat Mafia were probably the epitome of it in real life, whilst media presented us with a series of bad boys out to seduce teenage girls to the dark side. In many ways, the Goth scene was what these apocryphal modern fairy tales seemed to be warning about, but that changed. Horribly, it took the murder of Sophie Lancaster to finally push the media onto a different track. The fact that she had acted so bravely, so selflessly and that the attack had been predicated purely because of her tribe seemed to have switched something around. The script became focused far more on gangs of ‘youths’ who had no respect for law and order. There had been a low level antipathy towards this demographic anyway but they have become seen as far more of a menace in recent years, not aided I’m sure, by the 2011 riots (remember those?). Sometimes I wonder if there’s a class element to this too. Considering how quickly the narrative about the recession turned from blaming the rich and banks (in the mainstream press) to slamming the Labour party for financial mismanagement and the way the poor and disabled have been demonised in recent years; there is often a nasty classism to British interpretations of the zombie problem. When was the last time you saw a middle-class zombie? 

Could the zombie be just a way of dealing with these irritations, an almost Malthusian desire for a
world less cluttered with people? If the zombie is a metaphor is it because it so closely aligns with this slow drip of daily irritations which we unable to get respite from. Technology has made this worse; adding another strand as people vanish inside their devices, becoming zombie like as they communicate with people on the other side of the world, but ignore their local communities. I’m guilty of this myself, in fact at present I’m struggling because I realise how few people I consider to be friends I know in the physical world.

Technology in general has become complicated enough to prove a problem. The days where cars and other appliances were fixable at home are behind us in the main. Cars have computers in, which talk to other computers when something goes wrong. Technology has become more complex, and therefore harder for the layman or woman to use. Another bar to feeling as if we are in control of our world, even if this something we have created.

The devastation of the zombie apocalypse would, potentially, return us to a sense community and control again; after the initial panic at least. We tell ourselves we would be fine, even if that's not the case. It would shrink our world. The borders of our perception would become manageable, rather than the overwhelming barrage of data the news seems to give us now. And we would have the chance to know our neighbours, to be able to depend on them, rather than rushing around or seeing them as distant figures who expect us to give chocolate to their children every Halloween and otherwise barely figure in our lives.

Other factors figure in the equation too. Diseases like SARS and the fear of bird flu mutating to be communicable between humans have dominated the public consciousness for most of this century, in a way that not even AIDS and HIV managed in the 20th Century. It is true we are overdue an epidemic, badly overdue one actually. When a new strain of flu finally manifests it will likely kill as many people, if not more, as the Spanish Flu did a century ago. Certainly World War Z seemed to use zombies as a metaphor for disease whilst other works have used them to highlight out quickly an infection can spread. Again, there is a sense of ‘we’ve been lucky so far and it cannot last’.

With all this in mind is it any wonder that we long for something to drastically alter the way we live. The system has become so large, our vision so great that it affects our mental health, makes many of us feel that our lives are without purpose. The apocalypse has become, I feel, a metaphor for the intense change the world is undergoing and it represents a need to have some sort of control over the changes; a way to fix them as they encroach, ever more, into our lives. I am sure there is a simplicity to the situation that is attractive – we know, or think we know, how to deal with a zombie outbreak: get a gun and aim for the head. In fact there are studies that suggest a zombie apocalypse could be stopped easily, simply because the way of dealing with it is so well known now. I think the appeal is not only the violence (if it were the only people interested would be adolescents and geeks who mistake violence for quality), so there must be something more to it. For me, it must be about the desire for simplicity and an understandable world, in one that seems to be stripping us of power and grows ever more confusing. Zombies are a metaphor for this, both in a desire to simplify our world and to be able to stop thinking, stop choosing and simply live to the best of our ability.

As a symbol of the Zeitgeist the zombie is inelegant, but perhaps that's appropriate; the new century shambles along, lurching from crisis to crisis. Perhaps in time we will outgrow it and see something new emerge, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Supers setting 4: The 1980s

Brink of Disaster

The 1980s began with a bang, literally. As Ronald Reagan took the stand to make his inaugural address, a shot rang out and he fell; his body vaporising. Panic spread through Washington. With the Vice President, George H Bush hastily sworn in; the White House and Pentagon began sabre rattling directed at the Kremlin. Ships were moved to strategic points in the Atlantic and Baltic; the Eagle suits and their pilot were sent to Berlin.

In response, Red Army units were moved into Eastern European countries. Pro-democracy campaigns came under intense scrutiny and even threats. Poland's Solidarity engaged in clashes with the authorities, something that came to an abrupt end when the New Man, Gusar (Hussar), was deployed to crush a demonstration in 1982. The march turned into a riot, and over a hundred people died as Gusar let loose with his powers. At the height of the riot, however, something strange happened. The New Man's powers suddenly failed and he plummeted to the ground.

The mob tore him to pieces.

The world reeled at the news, the Kremlin launched into a damage limitation campaign. For a while, the New Men were everywhere, doing good works in Soviet countries and feats of power. They drilled oil wells in Iraq, constructed buildings in Turkey and throughout the Eastern Bloc; always making sure the TV cameras were nearby. In Poland, the secret police rounded up Solidarity's leaders and deported them to Russia for trial. The wheels of 'justice' turned quickly and the men were sentenced to a lifetime breaking rocks in Siberia.

As the Kremlin blustered and threatened dire consequences, investigators were hard at work; picking the mystery to pieces. President Bush was made aware of a special intelligence agency, one that had been hidden within the Pentagon's machinery; waking in the early hours of the morning to find a group of masked individuals in his bedroom. Introduced as Agents Alpha, Beta and Delta; the spies alerted him to the fact the weapon that had killed President Reagan did not, in fact, originate from the USSR. The energy at the site matched no known Russian power source and was wildly different to the Tunguska energy signature. It was clear that the cat was out of the bag, the

Armed with this knowledge Bush authorised the creation of a new agency; which in reality was simply a  rubber stamping of the Pentagon group, rushing them into an overt, official organisation. Called Damocles, the group was to 'hang like a sword over the heads of criminals, spies and saboteurs' and to specialise in investigating the use of alien and super technology. On the advice of his staff he kept the pressure up on the Soviets, allowing Damocles to work in the shadows, tracking their way through a growing black market in strange tech.

Berlin became the flashpoint for the growing tension between the superpowers. Things came to a head in 1983 when a fracas broke out in the sky above the city. It remains unclear how it started, but it was soon apparent that a squad of New Men had a engaged the Eagle fighters. Angry words were exchanged between Moscow and Washington. A nuclear missile was launched, aimed at America. Again, even today it is not clear who authorised the launch or how it came to pass.

The missile arced over Europe and came to a sudden halt over the Alps. Some of Ackerman's operatives, working together, had managed to catch the missile in a stasis net. John Marsh, Ackerman's shadow energy wielder, bombarded the missile with the dark energy, creating a rift to suck it into a different dimension. Unfortunately Marsh's equipment overloaded and the feedback dragged him away in the missile's wake. Attempts to close the rift were unsuccessful.

The very fact that disaster had come so close shocked both sides and Bush, supported by his allies, called for peace talks. Cherneko, the interim leader of the USSR, was reluctant, but an event late in 1983 changed his mind. Damocles revealed that they had helped a Russian scientist to defect to the west. More particularly, they had aided one of the Tunguska Project scientists to defect. The secrets of the New Men were in American hands. Within weeks it was revealed that much of the programme was a sham, the New Men no more than a publicity device. This brought Cherneko the table and forced Gorbachev's hand when he took power the following year.

In the meantime Damocles located a factory island, fifty miles off the Chinese coast. Infiltrating it revealed the existence of the Symposium, a cadre of scientists dedicated to creating weapons from alien technology. The energy signature of the weapons matched the gun that killed Reagan and the presence of Chinese officials on the island served to send warning signals that removing the group would be no easy task. The team of investigators set charges in the most important factories and made their escape, leaving the place to explode. This was the beginning of the cat and mouse war between Damocles and the Symposium; a war of shadows that would grow to engulf the planet.

In America the waves of scandal and crisis that had punctuated the late 1970s rose again, when one of the original Eagle pilots, Mark Jeffries revealed that he was suffering from cancer, and blamed Ackerman for his illness. Similar revelations followed, the original users of the powered technology he had developed revealed similar illnesses, one on live television. Ackerman found himself summoned to Capital Hill to answer to a hastily assembled Committee on Super-human Affairs. All development at Cloud Ranch was suspended during this time, leading to a startling development. Ackerman sank into a deep depression, and died in 1988.

President Bush in the meantime, was re-elected in 1984 and set out to create his own superhero to serve as a symbol to the nation. This figure, American Shield, was introduced shortly after Bush took office for the second time. From the start, it was clear that the Shield was as much a PR exercise as the New Men had been, something to restore beleaguered confidence across the nation.

In the winter of 1985 Jeffries was approached by the weapons manufacturer Proton Enterprises. They offered him an extensive medical care package in return for endorsement of Proton's weapons. Jeffries agreed and became the face of Proton's home defence advertising campaign. Unwittingly the future of superheroes was being formed; the age of the corporate hero was beginning. More deals were signed throughout the decade, mostly within the arms industry. The breakout contract was signed between Beat-Boxx, a sound powered hero, and Pantha Records, wherein Boxx agreed to not only promote Pantha's artists but to appear in videos and commercials. This opened the gates and created a clamour for superpowered spokes-people in industry. In addition to this a woman, claiming to be from the future, crash landed in Chicago. Calling herself Silver Lining, she claimed to have come back to prepare the world for a threat that was coming. However, she seemed keen to seek out corporate sponsorship, and the details of the supposed apocalypse were always vague.

At the same time, growing pressure on the White House forced the government to cede the exclusive hold it had over super technology. Blueprints for Eagle suits and other devices were sold to weapons manufacturers and spread into the commercial sector. With new input came innovation and soon the arms trade were selling high-tech arms as a matter of course. Suits like the Eagle were in mass production and being sold around the world, but most especially to the American military and, in some places, to Police Departments.

Elsewhere the world became stranger. In California a number of rich business and media players were bankrupted by the Enlightened One, a confidence trickster whose mental power convinced them to enter his programme of 'Prana Manipulation'. When the FBI was called in, they found nothing untoward, all the paperwork showed that funds had been handed over to the Enlightened One entirely voluntarily, no matter what the wounded parties claimed.

New York and San Francisco were rocked by hate campaigns against the Underground. The White Dawn led a series of attacks on the sewers, using bombs to maim as many of the people there as they could. White Dawn graffiti came commonplace throughout the USA, and violence against minorities worsened throughout the decade. They came under increased pressure when they killed American Shield, after he investigated their activities. His replacement, a female American Shield brought in Damocles to bring his murderers to justice. The investigation led to a siege at Dog Lick, Indiana, which ended in the White Dawn's leadership being captured.

Japan was assailed by immense creatures, later revealed to be the work of a cunning illusionist; Yume. The first super-humans began to emerge in the land of the rising sun, forming sentais and drawing on their own culture of super-powered heroes.

In Britain cyborgs under the control of a Victorian machine invaded the streets of Birmingham, whilst in France the ghost of Charles de Gaulle terrorised Paris for weeks after a piece of meteorite disturbed his resting place. All over the world, the world was growing stranger, little by little every day. Europe began to see new heroes emerging and the EEC began to push for the creation of a European based team to protect the countries of Europe. It was not until 1990 that this began to take place, mostly owing to British and French filibustering and vetoes. Most of the superheroic activity in Europe was directed towards monitoring the Swiss rift.

The growth of individual heroes continued, Bronze Racer handed on the runestone that had given him his powers to a promising student at his university. Mr Recall began to operate a national detective agency, referred to as the Network, which worked to connect heroes to crimes as soon as possible. Alone of the public heroes, Recall pushed for greater inclusion of the Underground and went so far as to employ several members in the New York area as detectives as runners. Most memorably he was connected to Ebb, a woman who had been largely transformed into water. She had taken to living in the Hudson and frequently brought in the floating bodies of suicides and murder victims.

Saturday, 11 October 2014


On Wednesday, I got my final mark for the MA in Writing, earning a 60 for my Final Project. I have mixed feelings for about the mark, though I am sure it was the right one. I fell down on my grammar and that's annoying because I thought I had fixed everything.  Overall it means I have a Commendation, which suits me fine, I am perfectly happy with that and do wonder if the Black Bug Room is just stirring up trouble at the back of my head and making me irritated for the sake of it.  

What concerns me more is where I go now. I took the job I am doing now because I felt juggling study, work, looking for work and writing was too heavy a burden to bear. I had a really bleak episode last year, on the way back from an interview at Southampton University where I actually felt so numb, emotionally, that I wondered if it was worth continuing with anything. This prompted me to take the job I am doing now as a permanent place; but I do not have much affection for it, though I am fond of many of my co-workers. Especially the awkward squad of academics.  I do not want to stay, however, and there probably people reading this, rolling their eyes and saying 'yes, yes hurry up and go already' as I am not exactly shy about my mercenary nature anymore. 

It feels as if a lot of things are coming to a close, I am in a watershed between the past and the future and as I move forward I hope my path will become clear. The mountain is still there waiting to be conquered and I mean to do it. 

I would like to get into a job where I can write without feeling guilty about it and where I can do some thinking as I think that is a strength of mine. I also want something creative, too much bureaucracy is stifling and vexing and I don't have the kind of mind that copes well with lots of regulations. PhD is a possibility, but I am not sure. It feels fraught with possibility and with danger. I think I would be good at it (as I have been described as a 'natural academic' in the past) but I am conscious that it is a gamble, one with no guarantees of employment after it. And I would need funding. 

Creatively, the thing now is finishing Forest Brides and getting more stuff to market. I have Crows and Green and Grey to find homes for and would like to revisit The Games Master, the literary fiction story which may have been the real start of my falling out of love with RPGs. So it's goggles down and full speed ahead, into the bright new future. 

In the meantime, need any wordsmithing doing, guv?

Supers Setting 3: An Inauspicious Beginning

Some history today:

History: An Inauspicious Beginning

Super powered beings did not appear until the 1960s. Soviet experiments at the Tunguska Incident site created the first of their 'New Men', a super powered figure who rose above the old distinctions of class, sex and other 'shackles', ready for the perfect Soviet state. By the end of the 1960s the USSR had a cadre of these figures, and the United States was in a panic. The Cold War had come close to heating up in '63 with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Space Race had seen shots exchanged between Russian and American spacecraft, though neither side acted on these events. The appearance of the 'New Men' opened a new front, one which people were wholly unprepared for. The White House ordered an investigation into the feasibility of creating an American equivalent.  Military scientists scoured available technology without success. Everything was too big, too clunky or just didn't work. In January 1969 all the USA had to answer the threat of the New Men (who had, so far, never left Russian soil, not even to interfere in Vietnam) was Squadron Seven, a cutting edge group of fighter pilots who flew experimental planes.

Nevertheless by 1970 America had its answer, thanks to Dr Gunther Ackerman. A former Nazi scientist, snatched at the end of World War 2 as part of Operation Paperclip, Ackerman took a radical approach to the problem, exhuming the wrecks of UFOs from Roswell and other incidents. He used what he found from the machines to construct three suits of powered armour. Called Eagle White, Eagle Blue and Eagle Red, the suits were manned by some of the Air Force's top pilots rather than genetically altered humans. Washington was keen to show normal Americans fighting the good fight rather than laying a legacy for a super powered hierarchy in the future. The Eagle pilots became household names, just as astronauts did and the powered suits were sent to major theatres of war, whilst at home Ackerman and his acolytes worked on new designs and weapons to battle threats that were largely imaginary. What if the Soviets could create psychic saboteurs? What if their New Men could tunnel through the Earth's crust? What if they could launch them into space and simply drop from orbit so fast that not even the fastest missiles could do any good. The centre at Cloud Ranch blossomed into a full sized complex, no demand for technology or funding was turned down.

Ackerman's research focused on the alien properties of the captured craft, splicing and reverse engineering whatever he could. Within a handful of years he exhausted his resources, but created a number of successful projects in the process. Whilst these were usually pieces of technology, a few experiments created genuine super-humans; largely by accident.

He had already been involved in studies into the effects of radiation on people. Now he returned to them in the hopes that they would be a cause of super powers. Experiments in the 1950s had produced a number of strange effects but Ackerman found nothing in the data collected that gave him hope of creating super soldiers from the source and abandoned his search after a short period.

He had more luck with his studies into eugenics, though he was careful to restrict his investigations to Sweden. Here, he found a strange 'x-factor' in a small part of the population particularly in those who had their roots in the far north of the country. The Swedish analysis gave the first indication that alien life had visited earth in the ancient past, and that some of the genetic inheritance had been passed through families.

Further confirmation of this came from a surprising quarter. In 1966 Thomas Hansson, a visiting lecturer in Archaeology from New York State University found a strange rune stone in a dig, one dedicated to Odin's steed, Sleipnir. Eyewitness accounts reported that a strange force enveloped him and then he was gone. His next recorded location was Istanbul, where he caused panic for both Soviet and Western Istanbul Stations. Throughout Europe there were reports of a bronze coloured streak moving too fast to be seen. When he slowed down enough to be seen it became apparent Hansson was wrapped in a bronze substance that had enabled him to run at devastating speeds. Other heroes appeared, without a discernible pattern and there were always rumours of new heroes, even if they usually proved groundless.

Elsewhere, Ackerman met the UK's Ministry of Defence's Special Projects Office, to discuss the 'New Men' situation. He also met with the Listening Post, and was told of a strange message the Jodrell Bank telescope had picked up. The Listening Post were working on translating it but with little success. The British experience was starkly different to the American one. Whilst alien machinery had been discovered in the United Kingdom most of their experience of aliens was based on psychic abilities and strange energies, which struck at random, leaving places and people transformed. The results were more freakish and unreliable than either the American or Russian data suggested and it was far from clear whether the

Unseen in the 1960s, other things were taking place. The Hippy movement with its credo of free love attracted a great deal of interest, but unseen in the shadows something else was going on. Alien visitors were infiltrating Hippy communes, usually at the invitation of the leaders, who were seeking their 'Space Brothers'. It would not be until the 1980s that the real picture of what happened in the communes would come to light.

In the big cities abduction survivors began to gather, sharing stories and sometimes hiding hideous changes to their bodies. They hid amongst the dispossessed and the hopeless; creating the Underground.

Into the Light

The 1970s changed the tone of what was happening in America. As super-humans began to emerge, usually powered by strange artefacts or from experiments and abductions, things began to change. Costumed heroes began to be a regular sight in cities. It isn't clear what prompted this change in tone, but the genie was out of the bottle and the idea of the superhero as a figure independent of the state was born. This also brought a darkness, one that is perhaps best remembered from the Trauma killings in Chicago. A serial killer, Trauma used his powers to stalk and kill seven young black men, simply by pressing his hand against their chests; inducing a heart attack. Two factors disrupted his pattern. First, the eighth potential victim escaped, and second Trauma's power left a distinctive mark on the victim's bodies in the form of a hand shaped burn. This mobilised Chicago's PD to mount an investigation, and when they worked out that their quarry was super-human, to mount a plea for superheroic assistance. This came in the form of Mr Recall, a man with a super-human memory. He was assigned to the case in a purely advisory capacity, the policemen on the case Michael Daniels and Joshua Richards were to do the actual leg work and find the killer on Recall's suggestions. They tracked him to a small house in a white working class part of the city. The resulting shoot out left the man grievously wounded and in need of serious medical attention. What was more alarming was the collection of Far Right paraphernalia the investigators found in his basement. This was linked to the White Dawn group. In the end Trauma (whose name is still classified), was imprisoned for life, in a special cell.

This cooperation changed the way superheroes were seen. They became figures to court, objects of media obsession. Mr Recall appeared live on national television, wowing the audience with his abilities. Before long other heroes were coming out into the night, every major city had a hero and there was even a, grudging, acceptance of the more bizarre figures; the true members of the Underground who had been left physically scarred by their experiences. Cooperation between heroes grew, often catching the media’s attention and the word ‘team’ began to be bandied about in the press, even though most heroes worked alone.

In the meantime, New York saw a panic as rumours of 'Mr Feel Good' ran through the underground. A mood manipulator, Feel Good operated out of the clubs and parties throughout the city, using his powers to make people feel intoxicated. Ordinarily there would be no crime involved but the Police Commissioner was determined to catch the man to secure his re-election to the post. As a result the club scene was hit hard, as officers tore clubs apart searching for the man. Feel Good proved elusive however. He used his powers to soothe officers or to incite fights between them, escaping whilst they were incapacitated. This proved to be what turned the city against him, it allowed the newspapers to run a successful smear campaign after an officer was beaten into a coma. The FBI was called in and the city picked apart in sweep after sweep. The search finally closed in on an apartment in the Bronx. What happened next was short, but bloody and resulted in Feel Good's death. An investigation was held, but no conclusions were reached. The case was revisited in the early 1990s when the cops involved in Feel Good’s death committed suicide, out of the blue.

New York also saw the largest Underground community. Sky Diamond began singing in clubs, her frail figure a direct contrast to the strange sounds she was capable of creating with her voice. In the Bronx and other inner city areas it was not uncommon to see groups of ‘freaks’ on the streets, especially at night and at one point, in 1975, Times Square became a central point for the ‘Freak Revolution’.

Elsewhere there were reports of the strange sightings around the Nazca Lines in South America. Further investigation revealed that a small commune had gathered there, though most people had no reason for their being there, simply saying that they had heard or seen a message that moved them to travel to the Lines. They were walking the lines, seemingly without rhyme or reason. It was only after a year of walking the lines that the purpose of commune became apparent. A portal opened and a small ziggurat's came through. At the same time the other South American pyramids lit up with a strange glow and beams of light shot up into the sky above them.

President Nixon went on television in 1973, appealing for patriotic heroes to join a new initiative, a large scale hero team under the codename 'Defiance.' This was pure PR on his part, the team was designed purely for show. What surprised the public was that a team actually came to exist as a result of the Presidents plea. Even more surprisingly was that Bronze Racer, as Hansson had become known as, was one of the first to step forward. Other heroes came forward: Tornado, Psyche and Eros and the Mighty. Touted as the 'First Line' against the USSR and supplanting the Eagle project, the Defiants were introduced the public in the spring of 1974. They saw action soon after, being pushed into a number of theatres of war, including Vietnam. This was curtailed however by complaints from the Pentagon about the team's effect on discipline and complained that Russia, in response to the Defiants' action had deployed a group of New Men to Vietnam in a lightning strike. They alone, preferred the Eagle project.

Ackerman, in contrast spent the decade looking for more sources of potential super powers. His organisation grew, diversifying as types of aliens were identified. Much of his efforts were directed to cataloguing cases, developing theories and a huge database with every known abduction, sighting and encounter. He identified Ancient Astronauts, Abductors, Fractals and Horrors, noting their tendencies and patterns and the likely effects of their presence on humans. In the meantime he spoke to scientists about their work and discoveries. One meeting, in Switzerland, proved significant, though not in a way Ackerman expected. The two scientists he went to meet, John Campbell and Bridget Murphy, listened to everything he said, nodded and smiled and promised a great deal. They never delivered and Ackerman wrote the meeting off as a failure. A score of years later some of his agents began to find that they were being beaten to alien artefacts by a group of expert thieves. Around the same time heroes found that a mercenaries wielding powerful energy weapons began to appear. Soon after, the name 'the Symposium' began to be heard throughout the criminal underworld. Weapons fairs sprang up in odd places, selling advanced weaponry to anyone who had the money. America’s response to this was slow, nothing was done for years until the assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Towards the end of the decade things became bleak: scandal followed scandal. Politics rocked from waves after wave of revelations. For a time it seemed as if the superheroes would be left untouched, but in 1978 the New York Times broke a story that ended the Defiants as a team. A journalist, working undercover, tailed Psyche as she made her way across Washington DC and into Maryland. She was photographed entering a house in a Fairview suburb. What followed would end Psyche’s ability to operate as a hero and lead to her arrest on charges of treason as well as the revelation that she was an addict. The house was a Soviet safe house, operated by known KGB agents. Psyche was photographed accepting phials of what would be identified as X66, a well-known psychic amplifier in return for information about the team. Arrests were made and more, troubling, information came to light. It transpired that both Psyche and Eros were in Moscow’s pay, one because of her addiction to X66, whilst Eros had clandestinely been a member of the Communist Party from the very beginning. As the two went to trial the other members of the team resigned. By the end of the year, the Defiance Project was over.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Why I Won't Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

My name is Steve Cotterill and I will not survive the zombie apocalypse. Despite what an online test
says (Play Buzz's quiz reckons I would survive for a year), and despite the fact that I know enough about zombies to survive, more than they ever seem to in zombie films anyway: the odds of my turning into zombie chow are pretty high in the unlikely case of an outbreak of a revenant pandemic.

This is why.

Warning, spoilers ahead.

Before we go further I would like to clarify what I mean by ‘zombie apocalypse’. I am assuming a situation where the undead are everywhere, where government has been rendered pointless and the armed services are seriously hampered by their own people turning zombie. A complete breakdown in other words, with a global emphasis that means no chance overseas aid.

This means I am going against the grain of a lot of the pieces I have read or seen, where it is assumed that some sort of authority remains and that with manufacturing and the army more or less intact order can be restored. That may be an outbreak or epidemic, it is not an apocalypse. An apocalypse would mean everything we know changes and we have to rewrite the book we live by from page one. Playing X-Box with your zombie mate is not something you could do... if only because there would be no electricity.

Anyway, back to my little tale of woe.

Realistically, I am a white Caucasian male in my late thirties. I do not exercise apart from for walking. I am not strong or fit. I live in a city and even though I can reach fields in about half an hour to an hour of walking, everybody else is going to be doing that so it’s not a fool proof survival tactic. Even if I were to get outside the city I would have to come back in to gather food. In fact I’d have to stock up on supplies before I went south into Worcestershire: I do not have canned food, or an axe for chopping wood. In fact I do not have any of the basic tools I would need to even set up a basic camp site (humans start to forget skills if we do not use them for ten days and I have not been camping since I was a teenager). So I would have to go into the city in order to get what I needed to get safely out again anyway.

This is the tragedy of modern civilisation, arguably of all civilisation. We can go to the gym all we want, diet and train but unless you're willing to work out the way athletes do the fact is that in a Darwinian fashion you're not going to be a survivor. Our marvellous creations that keep us warm, light our work and entertain us only serve to divorce from nature and lessen our chances of survival in the worst case scenario.

Memo to self: get fit.

The alternative way to find food, foraging in the countryside, is where the first of the non-zombie issues comes up. I am lost when it comes to knowing what is safe to eat and cannot tell a deathcap from a mushroom that will just be good to eat. I am too soft hearted to kill cute fluffy animals and too squeamish actually skin and gut them to be ready for food (the kid in Biology that went green with nausea during the 'how the human body works' classes; that's me). I worry if one of my cats is out when I come down to serve their breakfast for goodness sake: tough minded individual I am not.

I suspect a lot of the enthusiasm for the zombie apocalypse stems from a vision we have of supermarkets stocked with free food, without realising that everyone will be stripping them bare and that the vast majority of produce won’t keep. And when humans abandon a place, nature moves in.

Within weeks supermarkets will transform into havens for rats, flies and other things that humans, rightly, like to keep at arm’s length. How long would it take for animals, abandoned in the rush to the countryside, to turn feral? How long before humans were just another thing for them to hunt? There are already news stories about dogs attacking children, and as the recipient of two dog bites in my life from supposedly docile dogs, I can envisage the old instincts reasserting themselves all too easily.

Canned food would become the main staple of our diets and as a result, carrying weight becomes an issue. With petrol going off after three weeks, cars would become little more than convenient sources of metal, if a way to break them up and turn them into something useful can be found. In the search for food this limits the range I could travel and the amount I could carry. Suddenly the prospect of finding food becomes not a ‘go once and stock up’ but the more daunting task of making small trips every few days. Pedal power then is the most efficient way of getting anywhere, though oddly I can’t think of a single zombie book or film where the protagonists opt for the humble bike; even if Tyres from Spaced was one of the zombies in Shaun of the Dead.

Memo to self: buy tools and supplies.

And a bike.

The other problem, of course, is the threat of violence. Zombies are not usually depicted as peaceful hippy types, content to get high and stare at the stars. They are predators, even if their method of hunting relies on standing around waiting for prey to come to them, which hardly seems like an effective strategy. I cannot shake the feeling though that in reality the zombies would be least of my worries. I am more concerned by the prospect of other humans however.

There is an old saw that humans are only nine meals away from anarchy which has a ring of truth. More tellingly, for all our brains, we gravitate to strength. The man with the biggest stick wins. When real world countries and cultures break down, one of the most consistent effects is the growth of violent gangs who stamp out opposition in the most horrible fashions. In the absence of a central authority and even the notional following of the Rule of Law, suddenly the vision of gangs of people running around with weapons (or at least gardening implements that have been re-purposed for the purpose of causing damage) seems far more threatening, and likely, than the shambling masses of the undead. And, sad to say, it’s quite likely that men would be the targets of these gangs. Most street violence in the UK seems to be male on male violence and whilst a lot of that is fuelled by alcohol not all is. Worse, it seems to be expected, we wax lyrical about how terrible violence against women is without pausing to consider that the people filling A&E are often young men who have been victims of violence. It is normal, another part of the despicable 'boys will be boys' bullshit. It is the kind of thing that makes me wary, I hate being followed by groups of men unless I am in a well populated area and I find it hard to relax around people who are intent on getting drunk: a legacy of being the outsider too many times I suppose.

Did I mention that I am unfit and a bit of a weed? If I was not bitten in the first few weeks a bullet or modified spade would probably put an end to me (and I would be lucky in those circumstances, I am fully aware that it could be far worse).

This is assuming mass panic would take hold of course, rather than a sort of solidarity and cooperation as people pulled together. The economic downturn in Greece a few years ago led to people supporting local farmers, cooperating to grow food and generally a much stronger community spirit emerging. There’s no reason why it could not happen elsewhere, even if zombies were rising from the grave and the inevitable paranoia about infection arose. Humans are troop creatures after all, cooperation is in our nature.

Except. Except. It is an unwritten law of the apocalypse genre that when things fall apart it is every person for themselves apart from in the most tightly knit communities, which by law almost always harbour horrible secrets.

Memo to self... I have no idea. Spears maybe?

After this we come to two of the bigger problems. First there’s the issue of how much the world we live in now would affect the post-apocalyptic world. Having discussed the issue of nuclear power with friends it sounds as if most nuclear power stations would simply shut down if they were left untended for a period of time, but they would be a ticking time bomb in many respects (remember I am looking at this as a worst case scenario where we’re irretrievably bumped back to the pre-industrial age). As we struggle to survive information that is not immediately useful is bound to be lost, which means kissing good bye to those nuclear physics textbooks. The technology we have created has not only made us great, but in some ways also enslaved us. It is not just a case of us being dependent on it, the cost of de-commissioning it safely is extremely high and the by-products from chemical plants, nuclear power stations and the other things that allow us to live so far from nature are harmful not just to the planet but to us as well. This, incidentally, is one of my bug bears with climate change deniers; even if they don't believe human behaviour can adversely affect the ecosystem, its proven fact that the things that spill out into the atmosphere can damage human health. Surely that's enough of a reason to clean up our act?

Sadly, as things stand the zombie apocalypse would probably only be the first of many. As human infrastructure corrodes, the more terrible the dangers we leave behind become. It might take decades, possibly even centuries but the probability of something awful happening with the technology we leave as a legacy will slowly creep towards one. It may not be as bad as if an asteroid hits Earth or a super volcano erupts (catastrophes that also have an eventual probability of one), but the sheer volume of sites that once breached or compromised will start to poison the world around them means that the chances of long term survival become sketchy, to say the least.

Lastly, we have to consider the vectors for zombie infection. The tradition is that a bite from one of the infected is the thing to make you go native. Indeed, that has been the hallmark of the zombie ever since the Romero films, and has its origin in the narratives concerning vampires in the Medieval period, before that monster was twisted into a commentary on depraved sexuality – it was no surprise that the first aristocratic vampire in literature, Lord Ruthven, was modelled on Byron whose profligate sexual appetites were legendary at the time. However, this is not the only way that the condition can be spread. In Mike Carey's breakout novel The Girl With All the Gifts the factor that transforms people becomes airborne, in Stephen Jones' mosaic novel, Zombie Apocalypse, it begins with fleas. Even Hollywood has tumbled to the idea that the apocalypse cannot simply begin through biting. The Living Dead films deal with toxic waste; 28 Days Later with infected animals in a testing laboratory. Whilst biting is required for zombies to spread the condition, it is telling that it is not the only factor in the rise of the zombie, and that often the main thing that creates the problem is man made.

It is not always the case of course, World War Z contains a fairly obvious SARS analogy; from memory there's a viral element to how the disease spreads. Many works dispense with the origin all together, The Walking Dead simply borrows its beginning from The Day of the Triffids, allowing the protagonist to wake in a hospital bed and discover that the world has gone mad.

My point here is that we should not presume that just because we cannot be bitten that all is safe. A gust of wind could bring disaster in the form of tiny floating flakes; a beloved cat could bear a traitorous assassin. A sneeze could lead to the worst fate imaginable. How tame the Voudon zombie, returned from the dead by the machinations of a Bokor seems in comparison.

Memo to self: Find gas mask and full body hazmat suit, just in case.

With all these factors survival would be extremely difficult, even without the obvious threat (the ones who say 'braaaaiiiiinnns and if we are lucky shamble). Certainly I do not think I would survive, even for a year.

And, frankly, neither would you.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Superheroes Setting 2: A Wider World

The backdrop to the American Dream is a world that, despite everything, has absorbed the superhero phenomena as best it can. They have been monetised, made part of society in a fashion that benefits everyone and lets them earn a living purely as heroes. Only disaffected dreamers fall outside the so called Power Machine that makes money, pays bills and creates heroes. Not everything is roses and rainbows however. Heroism demands a high personal price; increasingly personal ethics are something out of place in the superhero world. It is not uncommon for the newly empowered to find they are literally stalked by media and business people; the lure of the superhero has not lost any of its appeal, even after thirty years of hype. Newly signed heroes are treated like debutantes, press conferences are called to introduce them to the world, footage is leaked online to show what they can do; sometimes with highly negative effects. Most of the time new hero identities are encouraged, though two companies, Fuji International and American Sonics have legacy identities for their hero teams, handing them down from hero to hero.

Within the United States the vast majority of superheroes are situated in, or near, large cities; usually housed within corporate compounds or luxury estates. The effect on city planning has been to create small areas of pristine luxury for the products of the Power Industry to live in, tucked away from ordinary people. They are surrounded by beauty, high technology toys and nature, even in the densest urban sprawl. The average superhero pulls in a six figure salary and adds a cut from sponsorship and merchandising deals on top of that. Most heroes can afford to retire after ten years, even with the issues regarding their health, lucky ones can go onto have successful careers in other areas and the truly popular can afford to construct their own private paradises anywhere in the world.

At the other end of the scale is the Underground, a community of freaks whose experiences have left them too strange for the rest of the world. ‘Young gods’, as the journalist G. Morrison, has referred to heroes, can walk amongst us: others are not so fortunate. Members of the Underground tend to be physically or mentally scarred, usually beyond the scope of plastic surgery and therapy. The powers they have are often invasive or strange, and often have negative effects on both the wielder and the people around them. A boy who makes it feel as if insects are crawling across your skin is never going to become a household name, nor is a girl who can smell infidelity. Many of the people on the Underground are little more than teenagers, but once you step into it leaving and going back to an ordinary life becomes increasingly difficult and few leave even when offered the chance. Most of them want nothing more than to be left alone, knowing that they will not be accepted anywhere else. There have been brief flirtations with the Underground. In 1970s New York the then new community found access to nightclubs and the ‘freak scene’. One of them, under the name, Sky Diamond, even went on to have a short lived singing career. The more psychedelic members were celebrated, even if the ‘trolls’, whose changes were physical, did not find themselves accepted. In the main though, the Underground has been ignored and neglected, except where it spills out into the daylight world. There is an element of urban mythology to the Underground. Even after all this time, people are unwilling to accept that it exists, partly from shock and partly because the very idea of people living in the worst conditions imaginable in the Developed World is beyond most people. Like sex, it has become something that is discovered ‘fresh’ by successive generations. A Seattle benefit gigs in 1997 to support the victims of alien abductions had echoes of similar events fifteen years before in Philadelphia. The fact that neither city has a large Underground seemed to pass the organisers by.

In between the two sit a few vigilantes who choose to reject both ends of the spectrum. This is where the vanishingly small numbers of unpowered super people are found, relying on skills and equipment rather than anything else. If the Underground is largely an urban myth then the ‘street crusaders’ are only a few steps above, even if the idea of the mysterious vigilante has proved just that; an idea. Most of these people operate for a shorter period of time than the corporate backed heroes; owing to a lack of adequate healthcare and resources. A White House report on the matter suggested that the operational ‘lifespan’ of an unpowered hero was as little as two years, noting that only one identity, Gold Gear, had remained active for longer than this time period. Researchers noted however, that Gold Gear was an armoured hero and therefore a) might be alien in origin and b) the current pilot might not be the original.

Often, despite good intentions, the unpowered fall back on firearms to maintain some sort of edge; becoming as big a threat as the criminals they try to stop. Their relationship with the Police has become increasingly fractious over the past fourteen years, partly in response to increasing crime levels and because Police Departments have begun to take a Zero Tolerance attitude towards so called unsponsored vigilantes. Even superheroes who do have corporate backing are required to undergo Police training if they want to support criminal investigations, and if they wish to have legally binding arrest powers they must actually join the Police force. A few forces have taken the step of trying to recruit their own super powered officers (or S.P.O.) but uptake is low to non-existent.

Despite this unpowered vigilantes continue to take up arms to try and clean up their neighbourhoods, and in 2010 the Crusader’s Council was formed, offering to provide some health insurance to Street Crusaders, as well as training videos and materials on the internet. The Council’s tone veers wildly from ‘get them before they get you’ to ‘how to be an upstanding citizen’. This has trickled into the mainstream, and the site is popular with everyone from women looking to defend themselves to teachers who wish to educate their pupils in Citizenship. However, the Council has also received threats from other groups, who see them as Un-American or as promoting dangerous, immoral loose cannons.

Their most vocal opponent is the Colorado Mayor, Diana Kelly, who was elected on the strength of her campaign to shut down the operations of Denver’s ‘hero’ the Night Warden as he spiralled out of control. Kelly has gone on to earn a reputation as a committed advocate of the so-called Joe Average, calling on corporations to curb the excessive activities of their super-powered employees, calling them ‘a moral outrage in spandex’ and ‘a bad example to America’s youth’. She plans to run for the White House in 2016. 

Militarily the US government maintains a squadron of advanced aircraft as well as the seventh generation of the Eagle power suits, which contain alien technology from the Roswell and other alien craft. Their researchers at Cloud Ranch overhaul UFOs and spaceships, study space debris and undertake tests. Another group, NASA's Project: STAR FIELD is dedicated to discovering new ways to get into space. They also have an interest in alien craft, with a view to modifying and building new shuttles, as well as the development of a laser defence halo.

Outside America, Russia still maintains a stock of super-soldiers, a legacy of the New Men programme they developed in the 1960s from parts of the Tunguska comet. Whilst the original New Men became unstable, scientists have developed new formulae to empower willing subjects from the Russian army. Tunguska remains a no-go area, heavily policed to keep the public out.

In the Black Sea, Crimea suffered the attentions of a group of renegade New Men soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Perestroika. Led by Doctor Ganymede, the group of five super-powered beings tore the Crimea free of the rest of Ukraine dragging it out into the middle of the Black Sea. Since then the island has become a technocratic republic, autocratic in nature and driven by alien and advanced technology.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Setting Give Away: Who Wants to be a Superhero

One of the issues I have with leaving gaming is that the ideas don't stop coming and I find it too easy to just whip up something for the hell of it. Ideas are easy after all, and I find myself thinking of one thing and then... it snowballs.

Sometimes I can use what I concoct, it can be turned into fiction (that's what's sort of happening with the Dream Settings stuff I posted a few months ago). On other occasions though... nah, nothing doing: the idea is stubbornly beyond my ability to convert into prose.

This is one of those...

The basic setting is a superhero world where all the powers are based on things to do with aliens, be they the result of abduction, alien heritage or anything else. Some of the science works like magic, naturally, but I wanted to keep the general sense of the powers limited to a single source.

The other thing I wanted to play around with was the idea of celebrity and, at the extreme opposite, the idea of an underground of super powered people who would be ugly and 'broken' in some respect.

I'll try to get this all up on the blog and then do a collected document that will be downloadable from my Google Drive (let me know if you like it please).

First up, the root of the idea a TV show and the team that the winners go onto.

American's Next Hero and the American Dream

America's Next Hero is a syndicated TV show dedicated to searching for a group of young heroes to be the next big thing, a superhero team that's already known as the American Dream and is sponsored by Sanderson Industries. The show goes out once a week, but there are online clips of training sessions, as well as interviews with the contestants, who hail from all across America. They know that if they win they have a slot on the team, a six figure salary and all the health insurance they could want. They know they'll need it too, being a superhero is a glamourous, but all too brief career. Even if you survive your battles, the chances are you'll be washed up in ten years’ time with little to show for your experiences apart from medical bills a mile high. That's why most heroes are media stars too, that's why they party like there's no tomorrow. That's why they launch their own training initiatives, their own diets and why they go after all the sponsorship they can. For a short window of time they can live the dream, and party like there's no tomorrow but sooner or later tomorrow's going to come a-knocking.

The show takes a standard format. Hopefuls undertake a number of tasks in safe environments, dealing with dangers that range from collapsing buildings to fighting villains and sudden death games of super dodgeball. They are trained in various techniques by retired heroes, most of whom are household names. Each week viewers get to vote on which hopefuls should stay on the show, forging a team based on popularity. After five years the format has evolved to include away missions, usually to Defiants’ Park, the headquarters of the Defiants (this world's equivalent of the Avengers), Cloud Ranch Airforce Base and Project: STAR FIELD, the NASA testing centre for exploratory technology. Filming in these locations is tricky because so much they all deal with classified and sensitive information including a few heroes who have secret identities.

The final rounds of the competition are markedly different; each season aims to provide something new. Contestants are often taken to an unknown location, a tropical island, a stretch of desert, memorably, last year's show featured an underwater base, and forced to survive.  There is always a task aspect to getting food or water and the opposing teams usually have to compete for tokens, testing their abilities in an almost real world. The challenges can take the form of races, assault courses and rescue missions. Points are assigned by the judges based on strategy, control and finesse. Sloppy performances can lead to a contestant being expelled from the show, as show when Flame burnt down half the island three years ago.

The winners go to one of two teams, American Dream and Blue Shift, long established groups that have adopted a generational aspect of the superhero business and used it to support their business models. The teams operate on different coasts, American Dream operating out of Malibu, whilst Blue Shift are based on a small, artificial island close to New York City. The teams take it in turns to recruit heroes, establishing senior and junior wings for spin off TV series and merchandising opportunities. The show has run for five years, and initially had three sponsors, American Dream, Blue Shift and the Denver Defiants. When the latter went into administration two years ago the TV executives made the decision to stick with the two teams, offering them greater control over the show.

The current roster of American Dream is a five person team, with a support team and techs to keep them going. They operate out of the 'Crib', a house that's been featured on MTV and other channels with enough frequency that the team's handler, Abigail Sanchez, is worried about it getting old. The base looks like a large, secluded house, with a private beach, helicopter pad, sports facilities and garden on the outside. The inside is a plethora of training rooms, medical bays and strategy rooms in addition to the other more domestic parts of the house. There's a small business suite tucked away at the back of the house where Sanchez and her assistants thrash out sponsorship deals and TV spots for the five heroes. The other connotation of 'Crib' remains unspoken, around the team at least, but it’s not uncommon for them to be referred to as 'the babies' in private meetings between Sanchez and the team owner, Ian Sanderson.

The current members of the team are a group of heroes in their mid-twenties, all of them have powers that link back to aliens (more on that later) and all of them love being heroes, or at least the lifestyle that comes with it. Each of them got through the show, and remain popular with fans.

Mentat: Joshua Hannigan was hiking when he was abducted by aliens. He doesn't really remember anything from the point that the ship's beam lit up above him to when Captain Sapphire woke him amongst the burning wreckage of the downed flying saucer. A piece of alien machinery was lodged inside Josh's head and the surgery that would remove it carried substantial risks of inflicting brain damage. After a hospital stay, paid for by Sapphire, Josh was allowed to go home. Everything would be fine, the doctor's said.

They were wrong. Within days of returning home Josh started to hear 'voices', odd snippets of conversations that he could not trace. Over time the voices grew louder, until they threatened to overwhelm his thoughts and he was unable to leave the house for fear of what he would overhear. The world became overwhelming, it was only when Sapphire reappeared, drawn to an incident where Josh, in a fit of desperation had lashed out with his mind to silence the ‘voices’ that things began to turn around. With her help, he got the help he needed and his psychic gifts blossomed. Today the two are dating, something that has caused a great deal of upset, given that Sapphire is ten years Mentat's senior (this has earned her the nickname 'Captain Cougar in some circles).

Mentat's abilities include telepathy and force field creation as well as limited precognition up to approximately thirty minutes. Unlike many heroes his main sponsorship is with a research laboratory: Massachusetts Experimental Technology employs him to predict the likely outcomes of some of their more difficult experiments.

Sekhmet: The shyest member of the team Sekhmet, aka Juanita Cortez, was volunteering in Egypt when she stumbled onto an ancient tomb dedicated to the goddess Sekhmet. After a series of near disasters, which included a dropped torch, Juanita stepping on the wrong piece of floor and a near fatal tumble down a long set of stone steps. What happens next is a mystery. Juanita says she had an out of body experience, that Sekhmet chose her as her representative on Earth and rebuilt her body to make it tougher, stronger and faster. Subsequent tests have revealed that she can run as fast as a cheetah, leap vast distances and can catch bullets. She also holds a codex of ancient knowledge in her head and can fight as if she was trained by the best teachers on the planet.

When she was found, lying in the dust outside the tomb, the change was obvious. Gone was the skinny, nervous young woman, replaced by a figure who was statuesque, calm and controlled. A nervous Egyptian government insisted she return home, insisting that the old gods had no place in the modern Egypt. Returning to America, she was approached by the Foundation, a small but rich charity that employed superheroes to do disaster relief, guard aid shipments and generally do good. When the America's Next Hero show started up, one of her co-workers suggested Juanita enter, and use her profile to boost the charity's fortunes as well as her own.

Power Dude: Big, strong and dumb. Power Dude, as Mike Wyckman calls himself, was a rich Californian kid who decided he wanted super powers and was willing to pay someone to give them to him. It took a while to find someone who could do it, but eventually he found Doctor Jericho. After a short medical procedure Mike found he had the powers of his dreams, for a while anyway. He soon discovered that he needed regular top ups, and that Jericho's treatments grew ever more expensive, forcing him to enter the Super-Max Wrestling League to pay for them, and to keep a bodyguard around, after he discovered that he was so strong he could kill without meaning to. A slot on American Dream was something he couldn't turn down when it came along, but he still finds a big chunk of his salary ends up in Jericho's bank account.

He still fights on the circuit occasionally and as a result Landslide, one of the powerhouses he pipped to the post in America's Next Hero, has started to call him out for a one on one battle. 

Silver Star: Charming to a fault, Silver Star, Orin Lasseter, is perhaps the only unpowered hero on the team, relying on an alien battle suit he found that grants him flight, mildly enhanced strength and an energy blast.

Or at least that's his story. In reality the young man is a space pirate, hiding from the intergalactic bounty hunters the Blood Hounds and posing as a hero to get support (as well as the chance to live like a prince). Orin, or rather, Oram Lassar to give him his true name, crashed on the planet five years ago and saw a chance to make good, preferably in a way that would fill his pockets, get him allies and make him very popular. Then once the unpleasantness with the Blood Hounds was over, he could blast off into space in the Silver Nova and go back to his old ways.

So far the plan seems to be working, if only he wasn't enjoying being a hero quite so much...

Flexibelle: A party girl, a fashion model and the face of SuperFashions, Flexibelle, also known as Roxy, is living life to the full, even more so than the party hard Power Dude. She has lucrative contracts, six million dollars in her bank account and a celebrity boyfriend (Dan Schumacher the teen racing driver). She regularly goes back to Savannah to see her family and speak at local schools.

The problem is, it’s a lie, even more so than most of her 'history'. The public knows she hails from Savannah and that she was a normal girl until a high school lab accident gave her the power to alter her body however she wanted. It’s a pretty story, but about as far from the truth as you can get. In reality Roxy doesn't know where she's from and isn't sure if she even attended high school. Her powers are fun... apart the fact that she loses all cohesion when she falls asleep, transforming into a puddle of liquid. Ever the optimist, she remains determined to 'fake it until she makes it', an attitude that seems to be paying off, even if most of the school talks she gives are as Flxibelle rather than the person she claims to be, and the people she stays with in Savannah are simply the couple who took her in rather than her parents.

In truth Roxy's past is rather more complicated than she would like, if she knew about it. Created by the cabal of criminal masterminds called the Symposium, she was designed to be a living assassin, dependent on them for key elements to maintain her shape and, eventually, her cellular cohesion. It is not known how she escaped, but the clock is ticking: Roxy has only a handful of years before she breaks down completely into an inert liquid.

The team is supported by a number of staff, including Bullwhip, a retired hero who has taken a job as their personal trainer/professional sadist. His powers are related to the energy whips he can summon. A former member of the Defiants, America's official team, who was invalided out after he was grievously wounded. Bullwhip resents his new status as a 'support member' and pushes the team harder than need be, sometimes causing injuries through his dogmatic approach.

Sanderson Industries is keen to make the team as profitable as possible. The sad fact is that superheroes are expensive, training and maintenance costs a lot; and the fallout of battles and even disaster relief can be too.  The team also needs to be kept in the public eye as much as possible, through TV spots, advertising, and merchandise and newspaper interviews. The problem is that these methods are all very nice but the public wants their heroes to be... super, and that means battles, danger and action. Part of Abigail's job is to find battles and to get the team there faster than any other team on the west coast and she has a target of at least one big fight every week. She arranges local patrols for the team but low level muggings don't really do much for sales or for the team's profile outside the local area. This leads to a problem, in a world where having powers is a route to stardom and celebrity, only the most stupid become villains of the traditional, comic book type. It is far more lucrative to earn honest pay as a bodyguard or sportsman than as a crook. Whilst a few inventors turn to crime to steal components for inventions, villains tend to be motivated by ideology and politics rather than economic need; falling into a 'super powered terrorist' category rather than one of ’bank robber with fancy technology'.  As a result genuine threats can thin on the ground, creating more pressure on Abigail to produce results. Unknown to anyone, except Mr Sanderson, she has been known to employ stuntmen and mercenary squads to provide a 'threat' for the team to take care of in the hope that the revenue it generates from the mop up, sponsorship deals and so on outweighs the cost of hiring a cybernetically enhanced mercenary group like the Free Radicals, a religiously inspired group of cyborgs who use their profits to fund research into the creation of ‘the Machine God’, the first fully functioning A.I.. So far the strategy seems to be working, but the stress of it all keeps her up at night.