Science Fiction: July 2008 Archives

When I was looking for information on the X-Gene for the mutants and race piece I'm working on, one website I was looking at wrongly cited X-Men (the 1991 series) issues 2-3 as one place the X-Gene comes up. I was immediately suspicious, because I'd just read those issues when I was thinking about submitting a proposal for Magneto's moral philosophy for the Supervillains volume (which in the end I decided not to do, even though it would have used material I've put some work into both from the political section of my ancient philosophy teaching and the just war and terrorism section of my applied ethics teaching). I hadn't seen anything about an X-Gene in my recent reading of those issues, but I decided to read them again anyway, and it led to an interesting thought process about the story, something I hadn't spent as much time thinking about the first time through.

The main plot involves Magneto discovering he was genetically re-engineered by Moira McTaggart when he was reduced to a baby. She decided to figure out how the close friend of Charles Xavier could do the things Magneto did, and she discovered an instability in his brain due to the power he was channeling. This did explain how Charles Xavier's friend could become a terrorist. She apparently saw this as hindering who he really was, so she sought to give him a second chance by removing the instability. Many people might think she was preventing a power outside his free choice from influencing him.

What generates the conflict in these issues, though, is that he has a different view. He sees it as her playing God and making every choice he made since then suspect. It's as if he thinks his choices are only free if they go naturally the way they would have without interference from someone changing his internal structure as he existed naturally. I have to say that whether she's right or not, he certainly isn't. How does removing an instability resulting from too much power being channeled through him count as behavior modification of the sort that undermines free will?

But then he forces her to apply the same process (removing an instability particular to him?) to some of the X-Men so that they will follow him and not Xavier. She does it, and they do. Huh? How can removing the instability particular to him from the X-Men who don't have it make them loyal to him and not Xavier? If they do have it, won't it stop their powers from doing the same thing to them and clouding their moral judgments? So removing it wouldn't make them like Magneto. I'm not sure what Chris Claremont was thinking with this one.

Then they snap out of it eventually, because the process only works if the subject never uses their powers. The use of powers undoes it, because somehow the powers are tied into the way the brain has naturally developed, and the genetic re-engineering gets forced back into its natural state somehow by the powers in order to ensure proper functioning. This is also a little strange, because it sounds as if the re-engineering is messing with nature and proper functioning, except the original explanation with Magneto sounded like it was restoring a natural balance that the powers were interfering with.

This was Chris Claremont's last story on X-Men, and in some ways it was a nice send-off to its longest-running writer to end on a battle with Magneto that hits some of the main themes Magneto has always differed with the X-Men on, but it's too bad that a very important premise of the story is so confused, both on the theoretical level about what's going on in this hypothetical scenario and in terms of ethical reflection on that situation. I remember not really liking this story all that much when it came out (seventeen years ago now!), as hyped as it had been with Claremont returning to start off the new X-Men teams and the new book and my favorite new artist Jim Lee rendering the visuals. The first issue is still the highest-selling comic book ever. I don't remember my reasons, but it didn't strike me as worth the attention. I wonder if this was part of the reason.


DonD.jpg

I don't know how I missed this, but Dr. Don S. Davis, most famous recently for playing Lieutenant General George Hammond in the Stargate franchise, died on June 29. Apparently when he left Stargate SG-1 in 2003, it was for medical reasons, and he was only able to do a handful of appearances on the two shows over the next five the years, culminating in his appearance in Stargate: Continuum, which comes out on DVD in a week, exactly a month after his death.

The Stargate producers have spoken fondly of Davis over the years as one of the most professional actors they'd ever worked with (always knowing his lines before his arrival on set and always delivering them perfectly), and I get the sense that his lovable character General Hammond was really just Davis himself. The part had originally been written for him to be in tension with the SG-1 team, but Davis worked himself into the role, and they had to provide other characters to play that role.

I knew of some of his other work, especially as Dana Scully's father in The X-Files, but I didn't know that he had a Ph.D. in theater and that he had taught college-level theater for years. That doesn't surprise me at all, though.

For more, see the announcements of his death at Gateworld and SciFiWire and his entries at IMDB and Wikipedia.

X-Gene

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My mutants and race piece is in its second draft now, which I'll be sending off tomorrow. I do have some questions that I hope some familiar with recent X-Men occurrences might be able to help with. One of the comments I got back from the editors is that I was taking mutants to be literal mutants, which would mean genes mutated and led to their powers, and these genes would be different genes, genes having something to do with the abilities they end up getting. Nightcrawler's fur would be related to the kinds of genes that produce body hair. Cyclops' force beams would have some connection to genes that affect the eyes. Wolverine's healing factor would come from mutated genes that ordinarily relate to the immune system.

Well, the problem with this, according to my editor, is that the third X-Men movie has a completely different explanation of mutants. They're aren't literal mutants in the sense the term is usually used in biology. Instead, they have this one gene in common. In the movie, they call it the Mutant-X gene. At least that's how it sounds. I later found out this actually does appear in the comic books after I stopped reading them in the mid-90s, and they call it the X-Gene. So maybe it's not the Mutant-X gene in the movie but the mutant X-Gene.

This explanation is just downright stupid. How is it that this one gene explains the variety of powers across all mutants? Also, how did one gene just suddenly appear in all these unrelated people? Whoever came up with this idea knows pretty much nothing about genetics. I did some looking around in Wikipedia, and I found some blog posts about the mutant gene (including this one, which was somewhat helpful). Apparently the Beast, in House of M #2, says the X-Gene is technically a cluster of genes. That's a little better, I suppose, because it allows for different genes to be part of the cluster. Also, the X-Gene was supposed to be scattered throughout humanity but only activated in certain people, and those are the mutants. That's how humans can produce mutant children.

Given that mutants sometimes produce children with the same powers and sometimes end up with children with different or no powers, it seems to me that the X-Gene must not guarantee any particular powers but simply means there's a potential for powers. Without the X-Gene, there will be no powers. When the Scarlet Witch removes the X-Gene from the majority of mutants and the entirety of non-mutants, all the mutants without the gene end up becoming normal humans. So my suspicion is that this would have to be an activator gene (or cluster of genes), and what determines the specific powers is something else. The X-Gene itself is simply an activator, one that probably just isn't turned on in normal humans but is turned on in mutants.

If this is the official explanation in the comic books and the movies, then it changes significantly how my argument in this chapter will work. I think my conclusion still holds, but the argument for it is completely different from what it was in the first draft. So what I'm wondering is if this seems to fit with the recent comic books, since I haven't read any of them. I may have some of them, since I continued to buy them for a little while after I stopped reading them, and I did inherit some more even later from my brother that I haven't read. I don't think I have any House of M, though. I just looked and didn't see any, even though I thought I had some. So what I'd love is if someone could direct me to specific issues where this stuff is discussed, and then I can see if I might have them or if someone could confirm that this is pretty much the official explanation of mutants at this point. If it is, I need to focus on this. If it's not, and it's still sort of up in the air with the more traditional explanation still possible, then I can keep most of what I've written and just add some more on the new explanation.

Update: Someone else has arrived at a similar view, but it assumes one X-gene. If we trust the Beast's analysis, you could make it much more complex, with several genes contributing to activation of the powers, and perhaps all or a certain number of them need to be present. Also, the Celestials, in seeding the human populace with the necessary genetic material for mutations of this sort, might not have included anything like the latent genes to be activated or the activation genes but might simply have placed the necessary genetic materials, with the necessary factors for those eventually to reach a point where they do what happens later on. This would explain a few isolated mutants throughout history and a much more concentrated appearance of mutants in the late 20th century. I like the suggestion that mutates (who get powers later in life due to some stimulus like radiation) have something else activate their latent powers in the way that the X-Gene does with mutants.

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