These past few years, I’ve been greatly enjoying reading the Green Lantern (and spin-off “Green Lantern Corps”) comic books from DC. It’s big, crazy, space-opera stuff, and a magnificent, epic saga. This having been said, there’s one huge problem with the concept of the Green Lantern franchise which feels to me like it’s a product of our expanding real-life body of science flying in the face of certain basic assumptions which went into the writing of these comics when they first started, some sixty years or so ago. Specifically, the universe has turned out to be a whole, whole lot larger than we ever used to figure it was. Like I like to say: There are people still alive today who were raised in a time when the scientific consensus was that our galaxy was in fact the entire universe. It’s THAT recent that we’ve begun to grasp just how tiny a part of the universe our galaxy really is. And with that expanded understanding, one of the central conceits of the Green Lantern mythos has become absurd.
I think I have a solution, though, and it’s one which I would like to present in the form of an in-character monologue, in the voice of one of the central protagonists of the franchise, Hal Jordan:
My name’s Hal Jordan, and I’m an officer of the Green Lantern Corps, assigned to serve and protect all of the sentient peoples of space sector 2814, which includes my homeworld of Earth. This is all kind of bull, though, as any Green Lantern would tell you if they were being completely honest. Let me explain.
The Guardians of the Universe, in their wisdom, divided up the universe – the entire universe – into three thousand, six hundred sectors, and set a single Green Lantern to patrol, police, and keep the peace in each one of them. Some might say that one-three-thousand-six-hundredth of an infinite universe is a little bit much for one lonesome space cop, even one who can fly at transluminal (that’s faster than light to you and me) speeds, to handle on their own. Recently, the Guardians seemed to see sense on this point, and so they increased our numbers. Now there’s two of us in each sector.
This is a little like trying to fill an ocean with two drops of water instead of just one.
Let me paint you a picture, so maybe you can see the problem here. Oa, which is the headquarters of the Green Lantern Corps and the home of the Guardians, is supposedly set in the middle of the universe. Don’t ask me what that means; it seems to me like in an infinite universe you could more or less pick any spot and call it the center. But I guess by that logic, Oa is as good a place as any. Now, you can imagine the space around Oa as a giant orange, which has been split into 3,600 slices, along a vertical axis (you know, to the extent that “vertical” means anything in space), and each of these sectors given a number. Sector 1 is right next to Sector 2 on one side and Sector 3,600 on the other.
Now, when you get in close to Oa, these sectors are all bunched together pretty tightly, but the further out you go, the more spread out they get. Given that the universe is supposed to carry on forever, each sector, after a certain point, is, I guess, infinitely huge. Towards the middle, near to Oa, each sector only contains a galaxy or two (yeah, I know. “Only.”), but further out, they literally contain an infinite number of galaxies, spreading out forever and ever. And of course, a whole lot of completely empty space.
Let me let you in on a little secret: Almost all Green Lanterns are recruited from worlds within a couple of hundred light years of Oa. That way, if we need to get called in to see the bosses, we can do so in a reasonable time. If there’s an emergency in a neighboring sector and the local GL needs help, we can get there in time to make a difference. It’s a practical decision, and it’s one I don’t really have that much of a problem with.
See, although my sector partner, John, and I theoretically have this entire, infinitely large area to patrol, we mostly stick to our own home world of Earth. From what I’ve heard, most lanterns stick mostly to their own homeworlds, and only head outwards when they get emergency signals or orders to do otherwise. Actually patrolling the vast, empty spaces between the stars is all but impossible. The thing is, beyond two, maybe three hundred light-years of Oa, most people on most worlds have never even heard of us, and probably never will, and so we don’t get any emergency signals from that far out. Nobody out there even knows about this vast and theoretically-universal police force sworn to protect them from evil, and for our own part, we kind of have to turn a blind eye to them out there until something forces us to take note of them.
It’s not a pretty solution, and it’s not a perfect one. God knows I’d like to be able to protect the entirety of my sector, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more than four hundred light years from home within it. I might as well just draw a big line along that point from one side of my sector to the other and write “Here there be dragons” on the other side. And for all I know, there might very well be. We really have no idea what’s out there beyond a certain point. I suspect the Guardians do, on some level, but that’s their business, not ours.
So why not just divvy up the universe into more sectors and assign more Lanterns to them? Or why not put a Green Lantern on every civilized world? Logistics, basically. There’s no way to manage a police force that large. Let’s say that instead of 7,200 Lanterns, we had 7,200,000. How could any body or organization ever administrate a group of that many autonomous officers without any hierarchy? Even more importantly, we all draw our power from a single, central power battery to power our rings. I doubt it could handle more than our present numbers, and as far as I know, there’s no way to build a second one to pick up the slack. Don’t ask me to explain how the damn thing works, but it’s supposed to absorb and focus all of the willpower in the universe. Some sort of psychic wavelength sort of thing. I don’t know. But anyway, even if you could build a new one, it would only weaken the original, I guess.
So the long and the short of it is that we’re stuck with what we’ve got. We divide up the entirety of the universe into 3,600 sectors and pretend to patrol all of it. We smile and nod when our bosses call themselves the “Guardians of the Universe”, but we all know it’s a polite lie: They’re the Guardians of a tiny patch of the universe directly surrounding their own home world, and we patrol 3,600 slices of that tiny patch, while strategically ignoring the rest of the universe so that we can get on about the real business we have as neighborhood cops. The hypocrisy of it bugs me sometimes, but what the heck. There's lots of stuff that bugs me about this job, and I can’t do anything about any of that, either.
But what the heck. It’s more than most people do. More than most people CAN do. I’m just honored and privileged to be able to do what I can do for the people I can, and try not to think too much about the people I can’t.
* As an almost-entirely irrelevant side-note, I actually find Hal to be perhaps the most boring of the Green Lanterns, but whereas I prefer Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner and find them to be more interesting characters, it's the fact that they're more idiosyncratic that makes them more interesting, and that makes them less-useful as mouth-pieces for this kind of monologue.