Sunday, October 21, 2007

Union Dues

Earlier today I wrote about Path of the Bold, a collection super hero fiction I finished reading this weekend. This post is about a series (four so far) of podcast super hero stories on Escape Pod called Union Dues.

Two elements of super hero fiction engage us by making the heroes accessible, turning them into characters we can understand and identify with in terms of our own lives: awakening and strife. Awakening is the hero discovering something special about themselves and finding the courage to do something good with that power. Strife is the conflict that inevitably follows, in their personal and 'professional' lives. Most adults have awakenings of some sort or another, any time we find we have some skill or talent and slowly test it out. Heroes have the same thing, only their skills and talents are flashy, giving us something to look upon with awe. We all have strife. I once heard a comedian describe life as 75 years of getting kicked in the bollocks in various interesting ways. Like the awakening, a hero's strife is markedly more exaggerated. The key to "Path of the Bold" is that it showed the personal strife as being much the same. Each story struck a chord in this way.

Union Dues is a magnificent set of Super Hero Pod cast stories written by Jeffrey R. DeRego, hosted on Escape Pod. It plays upon the same elements of awakening and strife, tones down the former and tweaks up the latter in a way I have never seen before in other fiction. Like "Path of the Bold" and so many comic books, "Union Dues" is set in a world where heroes are common, almost 'every day'. But whereas "Path of the Bold" and so many comic books show groups of super heroes in small groups like "The Guard" and "Justice League", in the Union Dues world, the heroes have a union!

Being a super hero is hard enough.

Heroes might be super agile, super strong, energy manipulators, mind readers or super strategists. Cool huh? The strife starts young: powers develop early, sometimes while the child is a toddler or baby. An energy manipulator might electrocute their parents to death in a simple temper tantrum. Like a caring Big Brother, the Union looks after heroes by taking them in as soon as their powers manifest (read: legal, mandatory adoption). It indoctrinates the young heroes so that the Union rules and regulations are imprinted on their minds. The Union is a law unto itself, and operates much as other services like the police or fire fighters. The Union provides a valuable service: with thousands of super heroes, who is going to cater to their special needs? Who can train them, provide the equipment, costumes and legal protection for when innocents are hurt? The Union.

Here is the crux of the strife. As much as people like super heroes for all the good they do, we dislike them in almost equal measure. We fear them. They are different, not like us, they think they are so much better than us! And so the stories work by putting the heroes into a contemporary scenario - a government size bureaucracy with unknowable leaders pulling strings - and throwing in a hefty dose of "X-Men" 'scary mutant' xenophobia.

This makes for a lot of well thought out tension, and the protagonists are put through their mental paces. They have to control themselves, and somehow placate themselves into dealing with the normals nicely. Like us, they are trapped - all of us, trapped, in our work-aday lives. This is a very different style of conflict to the gritty gothic darkness of Batman, the edgy uneasy balance of power and romance in Spiderman, and more cerebral than the xenophobia of X-Men. I like it a lot... yet.. I am ready for some action. We need to see the heroes kickin' ass and takin' names a bit more - that tension has to change a bit, develop and grow.

Find all the Union Dues podcasts by searching Escape Pod with key words "Union Dues". Below is a brief synopsis of the four so far in the series.

EP027: Union Dues - Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw. By Jeffrey R. DeRego. Read by Jonathon Sullivan. The introduction story to the Union Dues world. super heroes.. have a union?! I will have to ask my boss for a comic book of my own! Features an excellent intro by Stephen Eley, where he iterates over some of the differences between for a writer when choosing to set a story in an alien world or a world "like ours". This story provides a detailed exposition about the separation of super heroes and other heroes, and how hard it is for all of them to get along.

EP049: Union Dues - Off White Lies. By Jeffrey R. DeRego. Read by Scott Sigler. Now I know where the bad guys came from. I swear I saw an episode of X-Files covering this topic. With a bureaucracy as large as the Union, you have to wonder, where does all the work come from?

EP062: Union Dues - The Baby and the Bathwater. By Jeffrey R. DeRego Read by Mur Lafferty (of I Should Be Writing and Geek Fu Action Grip. Tells of the harsh cost to family of having a super-hero baby, damned either way. Somehow, us normals don't accept the realm of super heroes too well - "X-Men" anyone? What would happen if we tried to live together, I wonder? Could normals and supers really integrate?

EP080: Union Dues - Cleanup in Aisle Five. By Jeffrey R. DeRego. Read by Rich Sigfrit. Carries the same muted, somewhat dark undertones as the other three. Again, this story shows us that being a hero really isn't all that glamorous and that super powers don't make it easy being accepted.

This is a brilliant series and I am eager to hear more. Jeffrey R. DeRego, if you are listening - well done, but I do have a suggestion. I get the gritty "hard to fit in" message. Now can we have some flashy "I love to kick butt" messages? Please? *grin*

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