Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“Kryptonians can’t have babies with Terrans” is a silly hill to die on

So during a discussion about the new Superman and Lois elsewhere online, someone declared they couldn’t take the show seriously when it has a Kryptonian man impregnating a human woman (the Kents’ teenage sons are characters). Don’t the creators realizes that’s biologically impossible? This argument is simultaneously perfectly sensible and perfectly ridiculous, but I think ridiculous wins out.

It’s perfectly sensible because no, it’s unlikely Clark and Lois could produce children. Ditto countless other human/ET hybrid characters in comics, screen and print SF; people have made this point about Spock for years. The chance that human genes and extraterrestrial genes will be compatible is non-existent.

It’s perfectly ridiculous because come on, is there actually anyone who thought Superman was solidly grounded in science until they encountered this specific point? It’s one thing to discuss Spock because Star Trek does aspire to be a serious SF show. Superman has never aspired to that. Nobody ever sits around admiring the rigorous hard science that went into world-building the Superman mythos, then stops and says “But the one scientific flaw is the idea Superman and Lois could have kids!”

Yes, Larry Niven made that point, and others, in his short story “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” But Niven, discussing everything from super-masturbation to interspecies sex, is being funny; just suggesting that Clark masturbates is a laugh-getter (of course, as Niven makes the point that Clark’s sexual drives may be quite unlike humans, maybe he doesn’t masturbate?). I’ve no idea if Niven was ever a fan of Superman in childhood, but I’m confident he knows that sex is not the only way the Man of Might departs from a realistic depiction of alien life.

Superman is, after all, someone who can simply take a deep breath and suck a poison-gas cloud large enough to smother Metropolis into his lungs. There’s simply no room in his lungs for that. It’s not physically possible. Nor is there any way Superman can exhale so powerfully he moves Earth through space (not that doing it with his hands is any more plausible).

He can shoot X-rays out of his eyes and see what they pass through. X-rays don’t turn our flesh invisible, they only create the image on film. So X-ray vision is just as impossible as the Kent children.

Superman can see things so far away that the light couldn’t possibly reach him. He can sit in Metropolis and hear what’s happening at that exact minute at the South Pole, even though sound can’t reach him that fast either.

He can super-kiss women to the point their head spins from the kissing-ness of it all. Kissing is physical, but it’s not a physical ability like lifting things or listening. Being stronger and faster than a human doesn’t make someone a better kisser.

Superman’s powers only make sense as a magical analogy: a human being can inhale smoke, Superman can inhale clouds of it. I can hear noise across the room, Superman can hear it across the planet. Some guys kiss well; Superman kisses better.

I’m fine with all that. If I insisted on hard science in my fiction, I wouldn’t be reading superhero comics, would I? But to accept all that, then object because Clark put a bun in Lois’s oven?  That’s swallowing a camel, then straining at a gnat.

#SFWApro. Cover by J. Winslow Mortimer, not sure about the Superboy panel.



  1. jccalhoun

    I agree it is a dumb thing to complain about. I mean the odds that intelligent alien life looks anything like us are incredibly low so why not start your complaints there? (has there been an Elseworlds story where baby Kal-el is clearly non-human looking? I know there are things like Milestone’s Icon and Red Son where they changed his race or where he landed but it would be fun to read a story about a non-humanoid baby Kal-el.(and I know that Byrne made a point about Earth being picked because we look like Kryptonians but we can ignore that)).

  2. Le Messor

    They make the point on Star Trek that Spock (and later, Torres) aren’t natural hybrids – they needed a lot of (unspecified) scientific help to be born.
    Because, yea, no way would the genes be compatible.

    “just suggesting that Clark masturbates is a laugh-getter”
    Not really, no. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t, but whatever.
    But Niven’s conclusions after that were, I thought, stretching it. Good thing he was joking!

    1. jccalhoun

      They also did that TNG episode where they found out many of the humanoid races have common ancestry which would also make interbreeding easier. It is kind of a copout but at least offers an explanation of why so many of the aliens in Star Trek are just humans with bumpy foreheads.

    2. For me it’s like imagining Queen Elizabeth II pooping. So incongruous that I have to laugh.
      I agree that Niven stretched his argument. For one thing a red sun lamp would have rendered Clark temporarily human and eliminated the physical risk to Lois during sex.

  3. JHL

    Yep, it’s failing to engage with the fiction on its own terms, which begs the question of why they came to the the party in the first place. See also, “It would be more useful if Bruce Wayne just wrote a check to charity”. He does that, but he also becomes Batman. Because stories about Batman are more narratively interesting than stories about Bruce Wayne sitting at a desk writing checks. And a world where Lois and Clark can have children is more narratively interesting than one in which they cannot.

    1. Solid agreement on the “Bruce should just write more checks” argument.
      I always liked Alan Brennert’s observation that in a comic book universe waging a war on crime to avenge your parents’ murder is no different from founding Mothers Against Drunk Driving because you lost a kid to a drunk driver.

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