Superhero stories are some of our best fiction, as they’re the modern interpretation of the kinds of legends we’ve valued in culture for millennia, from Gilgamesh to Hercules to Robin Hood, and address the basic Jungian archetypes we so enjoy.
One modern differentiation among superheroes is between the Marvel and DC superheroes along the lines of abilities and powers. Generalizing, DC superheroes have few limits on abilities, while Marvel superheros are constrained by certain attributes, which the writers mostly adhere to. This is good for the stories as Spiderman doesn’t have trouble stopping a bus one week, but then is able to lift a skyscraper the next. Casting the characters with infinite abilities would be far less interesting, and many describe Marvel’s methodology as more science-based.
That’s fine if you can ignore the vast amounts of energy required for most of the superheroes’ powers, an enormous hole in the Marvel mythology. They clearly aren’t eating enough food for the kind of power they expend, solar is insufficient, and they aren’t radioactive (most of them anyway), or have any obvious energy inputs.
However, if one wants to remain within a logical structure, a power source is demanded. What could it be? Well, there’s one scientific principle that deals with an omni-present, poorly-understood, and potentially limitless source of energy – vacuum energy, or the zero-point field. This energy has been demonstrated to exist via the Casimir Effect and little more is known about it than lots of conflicting theories. Perfect for imbuing a fictional superhero with power!
So, how would the superheroes harness this power? This is given to us by the X-Men series of stories – it’s a genetic mutation. What exactly this mutation does isn’t well-addressed, but the X-Men writers go so far as to describe the heredity model for the gene that provides the super powers. Since this is genetically controlled, and all genes do is code for proteins and therefore structures, the answer has to be biological. But what kind of biological feature could harness zero point energy?
By way of comparison, let’s look at photosynthesis. For billions of years after life arose on Earth there was a vast source of energy right there in the sky (the Sun) which went largely untapped (in a direct fashion). Eventually, evolution brought us an organelle capable of harnessing solar energy biologically, the chloroplast:
Unmatched by human engineering, the chloroplast converts solar energy into chemical energy very efficiently. From this one development we got algae, simple plants, trees, and everything in between, and the Earth’s ecosystem was completely re-defined. Animals developed (or merged with) mitochondria instead of chloroplasts, but again there’s an essential organelle responsible for ‘powering’ everything that happens in an animal.
So, my proposition is that the ‘X-gene’ codes for an analogous structure in ‘mutants’, one that can pervade the mutant’s cells and biologically convert zero point energy into usable energy by the mutant. Or, perhaps switches on pre-existing coding for such a structure in human DNA, if it’s truly a single gene. Borrowing from the Greek naming condition, I’ll propose the name “dynanulosome”, meaning “power from none compartment”. One might imagine a biological microstructure that resembles a series of stacked plates of very high density that could directly use the Casimir effect to extract energy. (insert nice illustration here!).
This type of explanation only helps explain how the power is derived – how it’s applied is a completely separate matter, one for which I offer no explanation. Still, it fills a gap in the Marvel universe, and may make for some interesting stories. Obvious avenues to explore would be:
if the X-gene is a single gene (it has to be a switching gene, then) where did the coding come from in human DNA if it wasn’t used in the past historically?
Or, was it used in the past, and was it switched off? How and why?
Have X-gene mutations arisen in the population before and can they explain historical legends?
Why did the gene become so much more prevalent in the 20th Century (perhaps the 1918 flu, which killed 50 Million people was more than a simple flu)?
And one can imagine many more. That such a simple concept can so easily spawn so many interesting stories only serves to prove how fertile a ground the mythology of superheroes is for the human imagination to explore.
Feel free to use this concept in your own fiction. Nod if you feel it appropriate.
Update: Andy points out that Celestials would be those who would have initially planted the DNA code that would be ready to switch on.