Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
Exposure to fluorescent lights gives people a 98% chance of developing a superpower under conditions of duress.
Sophie Lee Mae is a first generation Korean American, Los Angeles brewed.
There is potential here for a very seemingly innocuous superpower to have unforeseen consequences to chaotic and juicy results. Take a big casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip, with well over a thousand employees exposed to fluorescent lights, not to mention stress, constantly. Both back-of-house and front-of-house workers would be affected, from the lowest minimum wage worker to the executives. As soon as the superpower developed in one person, the news would spread like the announcement of the prom queen, and the entire property would know before the shift was over.
Supersonic speed sounds like a potentially beneficial power, until inevitably someone exploits it and turns the blessing into a curse. A worker's output suddenly becomes faster? Why, the productivity output could double! Triple! Decuple! If a housekeeper can clean five rooms in the same time as one, that eliminates the need for four other housekeepers! With one-fifth of the payroll, record profits could be made! Sure, someone would need to make sure that the superpower took hold, but that is an all too easy position to fill.
But wait, the workers would cry, if our output is now five times what it used to be, shouldn't we be getting five times the pay? Why would we work harder for the same terrible money and even worse working conditions?
At first there would be a few who would volunteer to work at their new top speed — the brown nosers, the ones who are hoping for a promotion, the ones who simply need to outperform — but the rest would quickly put a stop to that, before the extra output became the universal expected output. And sure the company would eventually pay more — not five times more, but just enough to keep the whining down.
And let us not forget the 2% who cannot develop the power at all! Utterly unable to perform at the newly-required speed, they would find themselves victims of bitter envy from the others who are pushed to work more, and faced with contempt from managers who demand more from the entire workforce. Management would start weeding out the 2%, pushing them to quit or finding excuses to fire them. Discrimination! The 2% would throw up a class-action lawsuit that would make national media explode. Corporate, caught between what they consider their lowest performers and the appalled attention of millions, would then be forced to give out a much larger settlement than they ever foresaw.
After a bit of tug o' war between the workers and the executives, the union would be called upon to take action. Better wages, better benefits, better conditions, the same thing they have been saying for decades. But if the union becomes louder, the workers feel better, whether it brings about results or not. And corporate would drag out the negotiations while putting on their most compassionate face, insisting that they care about their employees just as much, if not more, than the unions.
Inevitably some overzealous person would injure themselves, and the resulting lawsuit would bring OSHA in. They would put a final stop to everything. They also would have received some "gifts" from the executives and so they would say: go faster, but make sure safety precautions are observed first.
And now imagine every casino on the strip experiencing this at the same time: you have a citizens' revolt on your hands.
Jaxton Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it's warm. He lives there with his finally-legal husband. His work has appeared in Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, and Escape Pod.
If geek culture had remained shut in the locker where the corporate mainstream originally shoved it, capitalism might have been caught a bit more flat-footed. Money makes things worth attention, though, and the Big Money from “capes and cowls” gave it a seat at the popular (culture) table.
They listened to the stories about super-heroes. They also listened to the stories about the companies who produced those heroes. To copyright challenges from older creators and their estates, whose names might have been legend but whose coffers were bare. They watched courts separate Super men from Super boys in custody battles. They witnessed cliffhangers on the fates of the Amazing, the Uncanny, the Mighty, the Fantastic, and the Incredible.
When actual-factual super powers showed up under the buzzing of fluorescent bulbs, then, the C Suite not only had a plan — they had precedent.
Maybe that’s how corporate employment agreements shifted overnight. Or maybe an executive, burning the midnight oil under the harsh glare of the office lights in a doomed effort to match his success to his ambitions, gained the power to instantly rewrite contracts. Either way, the paperwork was filed as if by super-speed: powers gained on the job were defined as work-for-hire. Any profits gained as a result of powers were thus due to the generous corporate patrons, who had given their employees such empowering work conditions.
Cease and desists arrived with a bamf and a whiff of sulfur in the mailboxes of newly-minted tea shops founded by former baristas. You might have had the ability to infuse drinks that made drinkers temporary polyglots, but only Starclucks had the right to translate that into sales.
Folks might have been clamoring to book your touch to transform their walls into fascinating windows on other worlds. Just remember, you owed Bust Bay a 95% commission on every sale since your gift came from your time on the sales floor.
And, they added, don’t even think about trying to list your Complete Nutrition Ice Cubes anywhere but the dollar menu at Wondy’s, where the understaffed drive-thru shifts set up your newfound success.
Meanwhile… one more weekend stuck at a business conference with Mr. I Don’t Remember It That Way awakened the power to project a recreation of any willing person’s memory in unassailable detail. Eye straining data entry unlocked a pheromone compelling the unvarnished truth about creative accounting and meetings on the Hill. The earache of overtime in the call center manifested cross-country telepathic networks.
Executives might have had a plan, but they weren’t the only ones with leverage. Combining unhackable psychic synchronization with a metric ton of incontrovertible proof about worker violations had corporate heads spinning — and not just the COO who developed 360 degree joints.
Top lawyers and their personal armies of quantum clones filled the dockets to stake their corporate clients’ claims (except for the senior exec who turned into a vampire. He preferred different wording).
But wait! A senior official at OSHA uncovered a long-buried statute. It seemed, under federal law, that any employer whose lighting system resulted in genetic alteration owed hefty fines for each and every employee. Owed them back-dated to the first day alteration was confirmed, and owed them forward for each day the alteration continued. Unless, that is, the company had completed form SMX-104: Declaration of Release of All Super Rights and Obligations.
Reams of completed and notarized form SMX-104 materialized at the same inhuman rate as employment contracts had spontaneously amended themselves. Which was odd, since no one had printed or generated a PDF of form SMX-104 for the entire history of OSHA. Still, the matter appeared to be settled in stunningly efficient fashion.
There was much feting of the senior OSHA official whose long institutional memory had proven so valuable. At least, there was an office party with toasts. Though the toasts were a bit vague. Everyone remembered the official, of course. The specifics were just fuzzy. They all agreed how lucky it was that the official had returned from vacation last week. No one else had remembered the tiny back cabinet they plucked the statute from.
There were whispers that it was all a conspiracy. That no such document ever existed before last week. OSHA waved it off. Super-hero stories had the sidekick who didn’t really die, or the evil super-hero who was secretly an alien impersonator. And super-heroes might be real, but that didn’t mean the world was suddenly full of retcons.
There were lots of superpowers, everyone knew, but time travel wasn’t one of them. That was as impossible as tracking down the new filing clerk who started two weeks ago. Shame about that one. Grandparent pulls out the biggest win in ages, and their namesake can’t manage to stay in the job for a whole week. Kids these days.
My super-employees would be super-pissed. Naturally, C-level executives would try to turn superpowers into profits, framing the potential for superpower development into a perk. (Come work in our glow-cube! There are snacks in the kitchen and you might turn into a human lobster!) After just a few months, the newly-empowered and always-exhausted workers would have a lot of motivation and a lot of fresh ability to fight for worker rights. Finally, there would be an exploitation of the workers that could be turned around and used as a weapon to get real, meaningful protections for them! And what better superhero team to wield that weapon than the workers, the regulatory bodies that protect them, and the brand-new Superhuman Union that fights on their behalf?
All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Sophie's casino is the start of a brilliant and incisive look at the way corporations will contort themselves to get around worker protections. Jaxton's story of corporate rights-grabbing is a delicious tale of true heroism. My thing is a desperate plea for tech workers to unionize, please for the love of god unionize, I know they have sour patch kids in the office but that doesn’t make your working conditions humane or acceptable!!!
How do your fluorescent-inspired superpowers shake out? Who benefits from them more — the workers, or their employers?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
In other news, the second issue of my debut comic miniseries EAT THE RICH is out in the world TODAY! Find it at your local comic book shop or at the BOOM! Studios webstore. If you prefer digital, it’s available for at comiXology, Google Play, Kindle, and Apple Books. If you snag a copy, I would love it if you would post about it on social with the hashtag #EATTHERICH!
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If you’re looking for ways to support each other during this time of combined legal and natural disasters affecting many parts of the United States, here are a couple places to start:
- Abortion is healthcare. Abortion funds are mutual aid. If you’d like to donate to abortion funds in Texas, you can do so here.
- If you’d like to support relief and recovery efforts for those who have been impacted by Hurricane Ida, click here to donate to The Mutual Aid Response Network led by Imagine Water Works.
No matter what you do, please find ways to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, support Black people and communities, and participate in local mutual aid.
In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.