Monday, March 13, 2006

Imagine a Year, Only a Thousand Times Longer!

The upcoming Supergirl arc is introducing an aspect of LSH that I’ve wanted to see for a long time—a sense of historical perspective.

In past versions, the Legion has always had strong ties to the 20th century. Superboy, Supergirl, Mon-El, Ferro and Karate Kid all were 20th century transplants, and the Legion made frequent visits back to ‘our time’. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Legionnaires were at home in the 20th century, but they certainly had more than a passing familiarity with it (even before all their trips through time). But in this version, we’re told, they aren’t even sure that Supergirl existed.

Which makes sense. Consider Robin Hood. The Robin Hood legend was created within the past thousand years, but there’s no way of knowing whether there really was such a guy, or where or when he lived, or where the story came from. We just have stories. Similarly, there’s no necessary reason why the Legion should know anything for certain about Supergirl.

Try it yourself. What do you know about the world of 1006 AD? Can you name three people who were alive in that year?

Here’s some of what was going on in 1006. Ethelred the Unready was the king of England (no Norman Conquest for another sixty years!) and Brian Boru was the king of Ireland. Leif Eiriksson tried to settle in North America at around this time, unsuccessfully. Gunpowder was a relatively new innovation in war, but European mathematicians were still centuries away from learning what a ‘zero’ was.

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a vast gulf between our world and the world the Legion lives in. 31st century Earth, once it comes along, will be so different from what we see around us that we are not capable of understanding just how different. And when you set your story in a time so far removed from the time in which you’re writing, you have to consider some things.

Most obviously, there will be differences in technology. In 1006 they were just starting to figure out cannons, in 2006 we have robot dogs that dance to their own mp3s, in 3006 the Legion will have flight rings and transmatter gates and spaceships and the Public Service. This is easy to understand.

But real future technology would not be easy to understand. Forget 1006. This website, that you’re reading this article on… would you be able to explain it to someone from 1906? (And how much do you know about the world of 1906?) I think you’d have a hard time. The concepts of things like ‘computer’ and ‘internet’ and ‘monitor’ just weren’t there (although, thanks to Baroness Orczy in 1903, you might have been able to explain ‘superhero’ if you worked at it).

So what concepts are we missing, that we would need in order to comprehend the technology of 3006? No way of knowing. But we can say with some confidence that ‘spaceship’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

And that’s just technology. In the last thousand years, we’ve started thinking about things differently. We have science now, which we didn’t before. We may still be religious, but we’re now capable of seeing the world outside of the context of religion. Given another thousand years, what else will we come up with? Or what will we forget?

So far I’ve been using this analogy: 1006 is to now as now is to 3006. It’s not a perfect assumption. One of its big problems is information storage. It is certainly possible that many of our records and artifacts will survive the next thousand years, and therefore the people of 3006 will be able to get a pretty good picture of who we were and how we lived. But:

- a thousand years is a long time, and our records might be more perishable than we think they are
- there could be some kind of cataclysmic event between now and then that interrupts the continuity between our society and theirs
- just because they have the records doesn’t mean they’ll be able to read them. What would you do if you had to play an eight-track tape or read a Wordstar file on a five-and-a-half inch floppy disk? And that’s only twenty, thirty years ago
- just because they have the records doesn’t mean they’ll want to read them. How many people do you know who are really interested in what happened in 1006?

(Among the things that will not survive from this era are comic books. Element Lad’s private stash? They must be reprints of some kind, because, last I heard, comics aren’t printed on acid-free paper. They’ll never last a thousand years, Mylar sleeve or not.)

I don’t demand that Waid and Kitson be visionaries and accurately predict what the 31st century is “really” going to be like. First, there’s no way that they could. Second, even if they did, it wouldn’t necessarily lead to a good superhero-comic-book story, and good stories are still the object of the exercise. But their handling of Supergirl suggests that they do have it in mind to acknowledge the vast sweep of time and its implications for the Legion, and I look forward to more of that.

In particular, here’s another issue that should come up. The Legionnaires are consciously taking their inspiration from 20th-century comic book superheroes, and, it seems, not from “real-life” superheroes. Which puts them at a disadvantage compared to present-day superheroes, who can learn the ropes from each other. The Legion has to work it all out for themselves. Think about that: we understand what it means to be a superhero better than the Legion does, because we’ve been reading about it longer than they have, and because we understand the society that gave birth to the idea far better than they do. The challenge of the Legion is not just to overcome their biological or cultural differences, or to forge their wildly varying ideals into a shared vision for the Legion. It’s also to reinvent superheroism, from nothing, in a society that never expected to encounter it.

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Blogger Greybird said...

Cogent and worthwhile comments! Thanks for linking here from your posting at

"What would you do if you had to play an eight-track tape or read a Wordstar file on a five-and-a-half inch floppy disk? And that's only twenty, thirty years ago."

Quite prescient, as that last is what I'm doing at the moment with my Windows XP box and a left-over 5.25" (sorry) drive. It's difficult even for the techno-savvy.

NASA can't read most of the telemetry and observation data from the moon landings 35 years ago. The computers still exist, some of them, that read the tapes, but nobody knows how to repair them, and the documentation is gone. An outrage to this taxpayer ... how about you?

It's a continuing problem that librarians and archivists of all sorts are having to deal with. You can go to a university library and read books from 1492, printed on rag paper, that are as clear as the day they were created. I can't read my WordStar files without gyrations.

I'd like to think that the legends that inspire us will last forever, but that's whistling in the dark -- even on the sheer physical level. We can't think ourselves into the mindset of 1006. The Legion's era won't be able to do so into 2006.

So much for our "immortality." But as Woody Allen said: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying." ;)

5:50 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, I'm not an American taxpayer, so the NASA thing doesn't bother me on the same level... but I couldn't agree with you and Woody more about immortality.

4:39 PM  
Blogger googum said...

I was trying to figure out why, traditionally, Legion spin-offs take place in the 20th century: Cosmic Boy, Karate Kid, Valor, Timber Wolf, and Inferno all had series in the 20th. Weird.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

From the point of view of someone inside a Legion story, no good reason.

From the point of view of someone commenting on comic books: because that's our present day and that's what we like to read and write about.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neat stuff. I remember ages ago, Brainy complaining about upgrading the HQ to have holographic interfaces, because the tech they had was so out of date it was ludicrous. (Which was the writers poking fun at themselves, for having the 30th century kids using stuff that wasn't as advanced as we had then.)

And you made me look up Baroness Orczy. Neat. :)

3:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...


4:41 PM  

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