Thursday, July 23, 2009

Green Lantern Oath: Something to Think About

The Green Lantern oath goes something like this, I understand:

"...and I shall shed my light over dark evil.
For the dark things cannot stand the light,
The light of the Green Lantern!


'In brightest day, in darkest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power... Green Lantern's light!

The Wikipedia article indicates that there were several versions of the oath: hardly surprising, since Green Lantern Stories have been made for decades.

The Green Lantern, Plausible Superhero - Really!

The Green Lantern, and the Batman, have struck me as the less-improbable superheros.

Superman, although the quintessential superhero in many ways, requires quite a stretch of that willing suspension of disbelief. It's not his X-ray vision, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and all that so much as the wild improbability that Earth would be the closest, most practical, or most promising refuge for Krypton's last survivor.

The same goes for so many superheroes: their origins rely, if my memory serves, on their powers being possible in the first place - and then on the wildly improbable chance that someone on Earth, in or near the 20th century, just happened to get them.

In the case of the Green Lantern, the big stretch for the imagination is the existence of Green Lantern powers - essentially very high-tech involving extreme levels of energy and impressive miniaturization. The other hurdle on the way to a willing suspension of disbelief is the existence of something like the Green Lantern Corps.

After that, someone on Earth being assigned as the local Green Lantern becomes a matter of routine. What's a little surprising, given the starting premises, is that it wasn't done long ago - or maybe that's covered in the stories. As I said, I haven't read that many.

The Green Lantern Oath: Okay, it Reads Like Something in a Comic Book - - -

The Green Lantern Oath reads like something you'd find in a comic book - because that's what it is. The oath is also an example of how an author can tell a great deal about a culture or an organization, without descending into a morass of exposition.

In the case of the Green Lantern Oath, we discover that the Green Lantern Corps has traditions, is somewhat formal (it has an oath, after all, that's said at regular intervals), and is based on a code of ethics.

All that, in three or four short lines.

Cordwainer Smith, in Scanners Live in Vain, shows a world about 4,000 years ahead of where we are now, in which interstellar travel is made possible by the efforts of Habermans and Scanners.

"Scanners Live in Vain" is notable for several points, including a sort of prediction of contemporary texting
"... He dramatically flashed his tablet at them:

" 'Is Vmct mad?'

"The older men shook their heads...."
("Scanners Live in Vain" Cordwainer Smith 1950)
More to the point, for this post, Cordwainer Smith's Scanners have a code: a set of statements and responses which summarize who they are, what they do, and why they're proud of it. A fairly large part of "Scanners Live in Vain" is devoted to a recitation of this code. I think it's worth reading, because it shows a great deal about the scanners.
"...'Are we habermans then?' Vomact's eyes flashed and glittered as he asked the ritual question.

"Again the chorused answer ... 'Habermans we are, and more, and more. We are the chosen who are habermans by our own free will. We are the agents of the Instrumentality of Mankind.'

" 'What must the others say to us?'

" 'They must say to us, "You are the bravest of the brave, the most skillful of the skilled. All mankind owes most honor to the scanner, who unites the Earths of mankind....' "
("Scanners Live in Vain" Cordwainer Smith 1950)
Get the idea that scanners have at least a sufficient supply of self-esteem?

An English professor I had - and a capable one - said that "Scanners Live in Vain" was far from the best short story ever told. He was right - although part of his criticism was, I think, due to aesthetic preferences which Cordwainer Smith insulted with his writing style.

Great literature or not, though, I think it's helpful to study works like "Scanners Live in Vain" and the Green Lantern stories. The authors of works like this manage, somehow, to describe complex societies which don't exist - and which cannot be evoked with intellectual shorthand like 'he had a German's love of beer,' or references to West Point.

The Green Lantern Oath and the scanners' code are examples of how a great deal can be shown, by describing a ritual.

  • "The Best of Cordwainer Smith"
    Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by J. J. Pierce
    © 1975 Nelson Doubleday, Inc., Garden City, New York

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