Red Son is a retelling of the Superman story where Superman’s ship lands 12 hours later into a collective farm in Ukraine.
Instead of fighting for “…truth, justice, and the American Way”, Superman is described in Soviet radio broadcasts “…as the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.”
It’s a very morally complex work. There are strong moral parallels between… wait, hold on.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead! If you have not read Red Son and plan on doing so (I highly recommend it), go read it before finishing this post.
Okay then. There are strong moral parallels between Communist Superman and the Superman we know. Superman is idealistic, nonviolent, and an all around positive guy. Lex Luthor is brilliant, but arrogant and megalomaniacal.
But the moral homogeneity of the original doesn’t carry over. We are clearly supposed to sympathize with America over the repressive Soviet system, despite the moral qualities of the people representing each system.
The book has Superman seriously grapple with the moral and ideological consequences of a Superman to the Communist ideal. But in the end, as the world’s most capable central planner, he decides he has a moral duty to act as humanity’s protector.
Things even appear to be going passably well under the arrangement. America, on the other hand, is floundering.
It’s unclear whether the regime’s success is more due to deft central planning or to effective repression. More than likely the latter, as the above makes it clear the goal has been an aggregated and homogenous “efficiency” divorced from any actual demand. Superman runs the Soviet economy like a Keynesian.
The book even touches on the moral hazard attendant to a nanny state. People act differently when they aren’t responsible.
The development of Superman’s moral qualms with his role on Earth is illuminated by comparison to (the even more opportunistic and tyrannical than Lex) Braniac, who shrinks cities and bottles them.
And though he detests full-out war, he has no problem forcibly reprogramming dissenters.
The moral universe the book sets up makes us uncomfortable with any outcome, but it doesn’t leave much doubt that America’s going to win. So how does scrappy America pull back from the brink after standing alone against a world of Communism?
By electing Lex Luthor to be America’s central planner! Trade isolationism, monetary nationalism, a command economy – a whole host of unworkable economic goals. Hey, it worked alright under Superman, why not under the most brilliant man in the world?
The similarities between Luthor’s rule and Superman’s do not go unnoted.
But these compunctions are quickly forgotten again once Superman leaves. Apparently he was the only corrupting influence on Lex. The reader celebrates the ouster of the alien demagogue, but the triumph of the human demagogue ushers into a billion year reign of prosperity and enlightenment under a cabal of philosopher kings.
So what’s the moral of Red Son? Apparently it’s not against demagoguery or tyranny. Though we might have a distaste for Luthor as a person, the end leaves us no choice but to respect his incredible accomplishments for humanity. And considering the parallel between Luthor’s and Superman’s rule was made explicit, we can’t condemn Superman’s rule and exalt Luthor’s at the same time. Superman created a utopia, Luthor created a utopia. They even used the same methods. We have to infer Luthor’s regime was just as repressive as Superman’s.
The moral of Red Son reminds me of something I was told as a child regarding the Boston Tea Party: “They were protesting taxation without representation. Our taxes are much higher today than they ever were back then, but that’s ok, because we have a say in it now.” Red Son, if you will indulge the anachronism, is nativist allegory. It doesn’t matter that we’re slaves, as long as our master is one of us. The British can’t tax us; an alien can’t rule us – by golly, we can do it ourselves! Rule by Lex is acceptable; rule by Superman is not – never mind the outcome. Even the Batmen, the anarchist subversives, don’t seem to mind as long as they’re ruled by a human.
Red Son’s world is a country in our world, and its universe is our world. Superman is a foreigner assuming the white man’s burden to civilize earth, and the reader isn’t supposed to look kindly on the arrogance. Xenophobic and nationalist undertones run through the book, though it’s not always clear how we’re supposed to look on them. Superman is repeatedly referred to by (what is presumably) the slur “Alien”. Lex and Batman both refer to the human mind as the greatest weapon – not as a universal respect of sentience, but as a solidarity of the oppressed against the alien. It is the human mind, never mind that one would think Superman’s ingenuity far outstripped any human’s.
Red Son almost ends with a moral of the value of individual human freedom, but instead it veers to a moral of collective self-determination – even as an end in itself.
Real and powerful demagogues like Mugabe and Gaddafi continue their narrative of self-determination and independence from imperial colonialism, all the while their countries fall apart around them. The experience of post-colonial Africa contrasted with that of America makes it brutally obvious that collective self-determination is a worthless and hollow goal without individual freedom. Let that stand as a warning to supporters of a Palestinian state (but that’s a post for another day).
Red Son was generous towards Superman’s capability as a central planner, but it was downright profligate towards Luthor’s. In reality, Luthor’s America, independent yet with little room for individual initiative, would fare little better than modern Sub-Saharan Africa, Communist threat or not.