Author’s Note: I’ve always been bothered with the incomplete science implicit in some superpowers. Just because it’s science fiction, that doesn’t mean a concept cannot be fully thought through. On another note, I find Edna Mode from The Incredibles to be a hilariously written character. So, I’ve written a humorous short story that has her addressing the science of superpowers. All hail Brad Bird!
This transcript of last week’s live broadcast is made available courtesy of WHJH TV in San Diego, California.
Conan O’Brien: Please give a warm welcome to our next guest, the brilliant and talented Edna Mode – fashion designer for superheroes!
Edna Mode: Thank you. Thank you. I deserve it, to be sure. You all have exquisite taste.
Conan O’Brien: Wow, you really are short!
Edna Mode: I’m tall on the inside, Conan. Unlike you, I rely on my accomplishments for stature, not my pituitary gland. And what are you wearing? That’s a hobo suit, dahling. You can’t be seen in that. I won’t allow it. Fifteen years ago, maybe, but now? Feh!
Conan O’Brien: Although Edna needs no introduction, her impressive background is worth sharing. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, she quickly impressed her teachers with her advanced sense of aesthetics and engineering aptitude. She enrolled in college at the age of 15, completing in three years a double major of design and materials science at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Edna subsequently earned master’s degrees in apparel design from the Rhode Island School of Design, and electrical engineering from Cornell University. She capped her education with a PhD in mechanical engineering from Caltech.
Wow, that is a lot of schooling! Did you have much of a social life? I was a bit of a partier myself, but I have trouble imagining you chugging a beer, Edna.
Edna Mode: My friends call me “E”… You may address me as Dr. Mode. I never look back, dahling. It distracts from the now. But no, I did not feel the need to fraternize with my inferiors or dull my wits with alcohol. In any event, my social skills were already acutely honed from dealing with bullies in kindergarden.
Conan O’Brien: Of course, almost everyone has seen Edna’s, er. Dr. Mode’s biopic, The Incredibles, in which it was publicly revealed that the government had engaged Dr. Mode to create costumes for the superhero community. Her unique combination of design and engineering skills yielded costumes that were masterpieces of both aesthetics and protection. After briefly coming out of retirement to aid the Parr family, Dr. Mode then went on to co-present with Pierce Brosnan the Award for Costume Design at the 77th Academy Awards ceremony. What were the Academy Awards like, Dr. Mode?
Edna Mode: I can appreciate your interest, dahling, since the likelihood of you participating asymptotically approaches zero with the inexorable passage of time. I felt that The Incredibles winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature was only, hmm, fitting. I was also pleased to note the absence of capes on the attendees, with the notable exception of Cate Blanchett. Normally, I say, “no capes!” but who am I kidding? Hers was made from the finest Egyptian cotton, and she looks good in everything. I was more aggravated by the supermodels in attendance. Supermodels. Heh! Nothing super about them… Spoiled, stupid little stick figures with poofy lips who think only about themselves. Feh! I used to design for GODS!
Conan O’Brien: Uhhh, let’s move on, shall we? My understanding is that years prior to creating costumes for superheros, you worked for DARPA developing gear for the military. Gadgets to enhance the abilities of individual soldiers, if I’m not mistaken. We’ve seen your superhero costumes, but you’ve not elaborated on your earlier DARPA work. Will you tell us about some of your classified work, Dr. Mode? Please?
Edna Mode: You push too hard, dahling! But I accept! First, I researched what other countries were doing in the field. No need to reinvent the wheel, as they say. And what an elegant design the wheel is. But I digress.
We received intelligence that the North Koreans succeeded in genetically modifying some “volunteers” to be capable of unaided flight.
Conan O’Brien: Unaided flight!? You mean flying like Superman!?
Edna Mode: Exactly, dahling. They grew several men who could fly. But it didn’t turn out well for them. Not well at all.
Conan O’Brien: What do you mean?
Edna Mode: Well, if you stop and think about it, the problems with unaided flight for humans are obvious… Nothing? Well, obvious to me, anyway.
The first few challenges they experienced were just annoyances, really. You can’t fly too high due to the lack of oxygen. At 20,000 feet, you’ve got less than half the normal amount of oxygen in the air. So then they gave their pilots breathing gear. But, it gets very cold, even at altitudes where breathing gear isn’t mandatory. Not accounting for wind chill, it’s about 23 degrees at an altitude of 10,000 feet. So then they wrapped their pilots in warm clothing. But, if you’re flying at high speed, normal clothes will flap violently and quickly shred. I should add that this was the impetus for me to begin investigating high-strength clothing.
But, it gets worse. When you fly at high speed, the air friction causes intense heat. For example, the canopy temperature of an SR-71 jet is over 570 degrees when it lands. Needless to say, their first pilot to break the sound barrier had fourth degree burns on his head and shoulders.
Some pilots had trouble controlling their acceleration. According to one report, there was a bit of bootleg sake drinking that preceded a flying race. Their fastest pilot launched himself skyward at a thousand meters per second squared. At a sustained 100 g, his blood drained downward. Violently. He blacked out as his blood exploded out the bottom of his feet. Not a pretty sight, I’m afraid.
(Conan’s jaw drops and the blood appears to be draining out of his face)
For the aforementioned reasons, their pilots tended to fly at lower altitudes. But they forgot to genetically engineer for superhuman eyesight and reaction times. When you’re traveling at Mach 3 and a flock of birds or bats crosses in your path, it’s a problem because normal human reflexes cannot react quickly enough to avoid a collision. Consider that the energy of a 10 lb bird striking the head of a human pilot flying a very modest 170 mph is roughly equivalent to that of a 200 lb weight dropped from a height of 50 ft. Apparently a bird was the last thing on that pilot’s mind. So, for all these reasons, the North Korean program really never, er, got off the ground.
(Conan is mopping his brow and looking very queasy)
Conan O’Brien: Dr. Mode, please, let’s switch topics. Was any work done with mechanical implants to enhance soldier performance?
Edna Mode: Indeed there was, dahling. Indeed there was. I wasn’t personally involved, but I had a friend, Oscar Goldman over at the Office of Scientific Intelligence. Ah, now there was a man who could make loud-patterned sport coats really work! And the man could accessorize! But I digress.
Oscar led a large (for the time) budget project to surgically insert miniaturized power sources, hydraulics, actuators, and so on into human legs and arms. Then the electronics had to be delicately wired into the subject’s central nervous system. Real cutting edge stuff, mind you.
Conan O’Brien: It seems unethical that they would do such things to perfectly healthy people.
Edna Mode: Your reasoning is surprisingly correct, as it turns out. They used people who had suffered serious injury. One was a male astronaut crippled by a test flight crash. The other was a female professional tennis player severely injured during a skydiving accident.
Conan O’Brien: Were the surgeries successful? What kind of abilities did they have?
Edna Mode: They replaced both legs and an arm on the astronaut. That went well. They also replaced both legs and an arm on the tennis player. But there was a problem with her body rejecting the bionics. Eventually, they worked out the kinks.
The bionic legs were rated for a top speed of 60 mph. The bionic arms were rated to lift a ton, as I recall. Unfortunately, there were design problems with only replacing limbs. What do you suppose they were?
Conan O’Brien: Um, short circuiting in the rain? Setting off metal detectors at airports? Voiding the manufacturer’s warranty?
Edna Mode: Your words are useless! Gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble! Too much, dahling, too much!
Imagine you need to move a car that is blocking your access to an escape route. You walk over to the car, grab the bumper with your bionic arm, and lift. What happens?
Conan O’Brien: Um, you lift the car?
Edna Mode: Wrong! It boggles the mind that you graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University!
Your arm is strong enough and your legs are strong enough, but what connects them? A normal torso with normal skeletal and muscular structure. Poor Col. Austin tore every muscle in his back the first time he tried lifting something heavy. And the strain was so severe, one of his eyes popped out of its socket! It flew clear across the alley. They ended up replacing his eye with a bionic one. Oscar was very upset about the budget overrun that caused, dahling.
Conan O’Brien: I get it! A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Could they at least run fast?
Edna Mode: Indeed they could, but running fast came with its own set of challenges. Normal sneakers are not designed to handle the extra weight, friction, and speed of a bionic person running at 60 mph. So, the shoes and socks disintegrate rather quickly, and then you’re running barefoot at freeway speed. Have you ever stepped on a LEGO barefoot at 60 mph? It’s more painful than a corduroy leisure suit. That’s when they bumped up my security clearance so I could consult on enhanced footwear design.
But that wasn’t the, er, sole running problem. Have you ever tripped while running?
Conan O’Brien: Are you kidding? I’m 6′ 4” and weigh 160 lb. A stiff breeze knocks me down.
Edna Mode: Imagine you’re running at 60 mph and you lose your footing, for whatever reason. What happens?
Conan O’Brien: I fall down and scrape my knees and elbows?
Edna Mode: Your fall would be no different than if you jumped out of a car going 60 mph. On one mission, Jaime Sommers recklessly chased someone through a rocky field. She slipped and fell, cartwheeling for 75 yards. Her head was banged up so badly they ended up having to give her bionic hearing on one side. She never did seem quite right after that…
Conan O’Brien: Gee, the superpower business is a lot tougher than it looks. Can I ask you to tell us another story?
Edna Mode: You can’t! It’s impossible! I’m far too busy, so ask me now before I can become sane. Alright, one last tidbit.
We learned that during the Cold War the Soviets were experimenting with a process that hardened human skin to be virtually invulnerable. They wanted indestructible soldiers to spread the “benefits” of Marxist Socialism. They actually did develop bulletproof skin.
Conan O’Brien: Well, then why aren’t we all speaking Russian right now?
Edna Mode: Basic physics, dahling. Bulletproof skin would work just like a bulletproof vest. It stops a bullet from penetrating, but your body still suffers the impact. If you wear a suit of titanium armor and jump off a building, the impact will still turn your internal organs to chutney.
They also failed to consider what happens when these soldiers gained weight. Since bulletproof skin won’t budge, the internal organs get progressively more crowded until they fail. And then it’s off to the antiquated Soviet medical system.
And that emergency liposuction won’t be easy. No hypodermic needle for inoculations, fluids, or blood transfusions can penetrate the skin, although I suppose they could stick it inside your mouth. No surgery would be possible, other than that which could be performed by inserting instruments into an orifice. All in all, making surgeries even more difficult and unpleasant.
Conan O’Brien: Well that’s all rather horrible to contemplate. Instead, let’s talk about that stunning outfit you’re wearing.
Edna Mode: Ah, you seek to redeem yourself, no? I cut it a little roomy for the free movement. The fabric is comfortable for sensitive skin. And it can also withstand a temperature of over 1000 degrees. Completely bulletproof. And machine washable, dahling. That’s a new feature.
Conan O’Brien: It’s lovely, but why does it need such durability?
Edna Mode: Well, I am sure I don’t know, dahling. Luck favors the prepared.
Conan O’Brien: Well, our time is nearly up. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with, Dr. Mode?
Edna Mode: Having only one superpower can leave a hero vulnerable. If you are going to be an effective superhero, you need a suite of powers. Or, dare I say, a suit of powers. That’s why I left DARPA and focused my considerable talents on augmenting superheroes’ abilities with my designer supersuits. There’s no reason not to be stylish while you’re saving the world. Fight! Win!
I’ve enjoyed talking about myself. Have me back again. Don’t make me beg, dahling, I won’t do it, you know.