Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

All Superpowers Have Penalties

This American Life, one of the best things to happen to radio since Fibber McGee and Molly, features a dilemma this week: Given the choice between the super powers of invisibility or super-speed flight, which would you choose? This is, at its heart, a comic book geek’s question. It’s the kind of thing discussed by certain classes and ages of young men until the topic is exhausted. We were, my brother and I, not quite in this category—although there were those fantastic days spent at my cousin Paul’s house one summer, in which I believe I read every one of his hundreds of comic books, even Richie Rich. But my brother and I discussed this in terms of wishes: If you could have one wish, what would it be? And no wishing for more wishes. We attached an additional rider: Every wish carries a penalty. If you wished to fly, you could fly, but you’d never walk again. That would mean your power would be public: everyone would know, and the great gift of flying would be balanced by the terror of everyone wanting a piece of you. If you wished you were worth a million dollars, you would be, but it would come in the form of a single gold block, immovable because of its weight, and very, very visible. It would, we decided, probably land on the bedroom floor, crash right to the floor below, and into the basement. If you wished you were invisible, you would be, but it would be a power outside of your control. You wouldn’t know when you would be invisible. That’s some penalty: Whether you decided to use your invisibility for good or evil, you’d be highly unlikely to get away with whatever it was you’d had planned. In this vein, some time ago I wrote a short story concerning the penalties of super powers, the fundamental basic penalties that even the most tortured, “realistic” graphic novel doesn’t address. The story concerns the wish I always wanted: complete fluency in every human language.

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Grant Barrett