Credit: Screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET
By Yonatan Gordon
Even as the latest Superman movie resides near the top the box office charts, revelations have come out that his ability to see through walls, may not be so “super” after all. According to recent reports, there is a wi-fi device now that may help you perform the once futuristic “x-ray vision” feat of the Man of Steel. But Superman is not alone. In recent months, Spiderman, Iron-Man and others have all had their superhero powers mirrored by present-day technologies. In addition to these localized findings, whole fictional universes have faced a similar fate. Perhaps there is no fictional universe that has hit against this wall of realism as strongly as the Star Trek series. To date, an astonishing 18 or more once futuristic technologies, have been replicated (to some degree) in our present day world! (for the full list, please see the end).
There are two very different approaches to what this means for the future of science fiction and comic heroes. On the one hand, as MG Siegler writes in his TechCrunch article, “Why Does Hollywood Hate the Future?”, most recent blockbusters do not paint futuristic technologies in an optimistic light. Siegler posits this is because, “we already live in a technological utopia of sorts,” and because “people go to movies to escape reality.” He surmises that the reason portrayals about futuristic technologies are now dark, is because of their relative light or optimism in present-day reality.
Briefly, Siegler does also bring the opposite viewpoint, in that “Gene Roddenberry’s guiding vision of the Star Trek franchise was, famously, that it would offer an optimistic vision of humanity’s future.”
The Optimistic Side
One of the best articles on technology this year was written by Adam Weigold, and was entitled “Can Futurists Change The Future?“. There Weigold explains Star Trek’s optimism for the future, and how he himself was inspired to attain a PhD in Laser Physics largely because of the “Phasers” in the original Star Trek series. The hypothesis throughout his essay, is that science fiction actually motivates present-day science to move forward. Using himself as an example, Weigold postulates that in order to benefit the future, we need to cultivate a new generation of visionaries. In any event, anyone interested in this topic is encouraged to read Weigold’s article, and the article we wrote soon after.
Technological Optimism vs. Pessimism
So which is it? Should we favor a “Gene Roddenberry” approach to life, or any one of the many films out today, where robots get to figure out new and innovative ways to take over the world?
We would like to suggest that the pessimism may stem from another reason altogether. As Siegler mentions, indeed “we already live in a technological utopia of sorts,” whereby even the most futuristic technologies from the Minority Report, are becoming reality in our present day (e.g. Leap Motion, Google Glass and others). Given this shift toward technological realism, the question now becomes whether we are living in the future we had hoped for? To say it another way, being as we are now living in the technological future, is this present-day reality of ours utopian?
When viewed in this way, any fiction writer that portrays a dark and dreary future, in reality, hasn’t yet come back with an affirmative answer. The deeper reason why these dreary movies are popular, is because instead of portraying a utopia, the darkness suggests that we are all waiting for some alternative. For instance, now that we’ve seen a majority of the Star Trek technological innovations reach at least some degree of realism, what futuristic thing will now come next?
It is because of a lack of a good answer, that even the latest Star Trek movie was called “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Siegler suggests that this dark shift occurred because, “people go to the movies to escape reality;” and since present-day technology is promising, the natural result is a depiction of something dreary. But instead, we would really like to suggest the opposite. It is because technology today is so optimistic, and because so many future technologies have started becoming realized, that fiction writers are really at a loss for what to write. So when it doubt, they write their doubts into the storyline.
But it’s not just future technology that has been stripped off its futurism, now even superheroes have begun to appear as ordinary mortals. There was a time when “being more powerful than a locomotive,” or “leaping tall buildings in a single bound” meant something. But now, if you have as much money as Iron Man’s Tony Stark, you can afford to buy something comparable.
But it’s not only technology that’s to blame either. A recent thesis showed how according to nature itself, the webbing of certain spiders, could indeed stop a runaway subway train (a scene from the Spiderman 2 movie). So what’s the answer then for those of us who still prefer some recreational escapism?
Escaping to Reality
There is a new type of narrative, that although only about ten years old, many predict will be the future of storytelling. It is called Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG), and aside from the popularity of the games themselves, the genre was made famous by Jane McGonigal in her book, “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.”
What we would like to emphasize for our discussion, is that there is a most phenomenal outcome to each and every one of these ARGs. While the 80s and 90s saw the rise of completely fictional Role Playing Games (RPGs), the great enjoyment of ARGs is when the players step out of the fictional story, and embark on the non-fictional elements of the world around them. Technically, this approach is called Transmedia Storytelling; but what we haven’t yet seen is a study on the relationship between ARGs, and what is happening to the world of Hollywood today.
Although each fictional storyline has been carefully written and developed, instead of finding the greatest enjoyment in the story itself, the excitement comes when the players pick up the phone, email another player, or go on an actual scavenger hunt. It is the real world elements that the players find most compelling.
We would like to suggest that the true power of fiction is in the ability to wake up from it, and experience the real or non-fictional elements of the story. This is the real excitement. To awaken from a fictional reality, and experience the future as the unfolding reality of the present.
What is a fictional writer to do then when the edge of their fictional universe has been caught by the gravitational pull of realism? Go along with it! Simply put, this means explaining the concept behind these technologies and superpowers we found so exciting to begin with. As with ARGs, following this approach is a sure-fire way to instill optimism once again into these futuristic epics.
Since we mentioned x-ray vision at the outset of this article, we would like to conclude with our “realistic” ending to the story. In order to appreciate the greater concepts behind this superpower, as is our convention, we will be looking to find our source for “x-ray vision” in the Torah.
Rays From the Eyes
Where in the Torah do we see rays shining from the eyes of someone? In one of the greatest superheroes in Jewish history, Moses himself! But what is most fascinating is that the rays from his eyes are only one type of ray that emanated from him. One of the other types is actually one of the most famous mis-translations of the Torah, as the word ray (קרן) in Hebrew also means horn. So if you ever heard of a depiction of Moses (or any Jew) with horns, this was the reason why.
In speaking about the rays of Moses, it says that these rays came from his connection to his grandfather Kehot, whereas his voice (קול), came from his father Amram. That being said, we have a gematria, a numerical equivalence which seems to contradict this finding. The value of “Amram” (עמרם), Moses’ father, is equal to “ray” (קרן); the quality that Moses was supposed to receive from his grandfather Kehot.
In order to answer this seeming contradiction, we have to say that there is an intermediary stage. In Kabbalah, it explains that the rays are a protrusion of the foundation of Atik in the forehead of will. The voice of the Divine Presence (Shechinah) speaking from Moses’ throat, that is in his throat. But, in-between there are rays of light, not from the forehead (these Moses was not conscious of), but from the eyes (these Moses was conscious of). The rays from Moses’ eyes, these he received from his father, from Amram (and again Amram equals ray, קרן = עמרם); and the voice that he received from his father was revealed in his throat.
Location of Ray
Conscious of it
Non-Fictional X-Ray Vision
With these teachings in mind, we can now begin to appreciate x-ray vision in greater depth. The first thing that we notice, is that both the rays of the eyes, and the voice from Moses’ throat, came through his connection to his father Amram. Or to say it another way, “x-ray vision” is a superhero power you get from your father. But the other important lesson is that in addition to this superpower, “x-ray vision” or the rays from the eyes, also relates to having your voice heard in the world.
Another immediate lesson that comes from this analysis, is that whereas Moses was not conscious of the rays emanating from his forehead, he was for the rays of his eyes. In the comics, this relates to the ability to see through things. But essentially, it relates to a heightened state of consciousness. The other lesson is that whereas the rays of the forehead have been mistranslated over the centuries as horns, the rays of the eyes have not. So if your superhero power comes from your grandfather, as was the case with Moses and his grandfather Kehot, it is important have the correct translation in mind (so as not to mistake the superhero for a supervillian).
Something else to keep in mind, there is also a modern acronym for Kehot (קה”ת) which stands for Karnei Hod Torah, or “the rays of the splendor of Torah.” It was in the merit of teaching the Torah to the Jewish people, that Moses merited these superpowers to begin with.
As for what it means not to be able to see through lead, that we’ll leave that for another time.
With help from material delivered during the 12 Tammuz weekly shiur in Jerusalem from Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh.
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