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The Clark Kent Problem: How Changing Assumptions Create Plot Holes In Long-Running Fiction

By Tom Anderson

An Alternate History Consequences article

It is no great revelation to reflect that elements of works of fiction may not age well as time marches on. Society’s assumptions and frameworks of understanding change, leading to disagreements over whether a work of fiction born of earlier assumptions should still be viewed in the same way (and, of course, older generations who enjoyed it at the time will be defensive against younger ones who are not invested in it in the same way and now regard it as offensive). This kind of objection (for example, the portrayal of women and different ethnic groups in past works) is probably the most frequently and contentiously discussed, but there are others as well.

Science fiction is a minefield for becoming obsolete, for example. If a specific date is committed to for an event and then that date passes without the event occurring, how to proceed?

In the 1960s, the writers of Star Trek evidently found that ‘the 1990s’ was a comfortably far distant date in order to write in a world war led by genetically engineered supermen, not dreaming that the franchise would still be around then. This led to awkwardness: was Star Trek now an alternate history to stay consistent, or was this incompatible with its core values of portraying a hopeful and optimistic future for us its watchers, not our counterparts in some other timeline?

In 1996 Star Trek: Voyager (when not accidentally creating the Obama presidency, as discussed in my previous article “From the Final Frontier to the Audacity of Hope”) featured a time travel storyline in which the then-contemporary Earth of 1996 was visited. The writers took the decision to feature a version of Earth effectively identical to our own (barring the plot related alterations), but paradoxically the set designers decided to include a few subtle background nods to the old Eugenics Wars plot. A spinoff novel writer, Greg Cox, later attempted to reconcile the conflict as a secret conspiracy war in the shadows ongoing during the post-fall of Communism upheavals of the 1990s.

Perhaps the more obvious pitfall for science fiction is when science itself marches on. Today a distinction is often drawn between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction, between fiction which tries to rigorously fit within the bounds of our current understanding of science versus that which is regarded as allowing slapdash unscientific assumptions for the sake of plot, or makes up fictional but still rule-driven science.

This is very much a modern and artificial distinction, and says as much about the way science is perceived today versus the way it was in previous decades and centuries as it does about authorial intent. It is quite reasonable to argue that it is ‘hard’ science fiction that is fundamentally the more unrealistic one, as suggesting that future generations’ understanding of the universe is going to remain effectively identical to ours seems a rather courageous assumption considering the track record of the human race. The scientific breakthroughs of the past 75 or so years have certainly created an image that we are just tidying up our understanding of quantum theory and general relativity and the core fundamentals of both theories are ‘true’—but this is misleading, as the two theories are also fundamentally incompatible in their current forms, so there is clearly more to discover, and plenty of room for something completely unexpected (which could redefine the possible) to be hiding in there.

Besides, as many philosophers of science have observed, we also thought that science had been reduced to a tidying-up exercise at the end of the 19th century with classical physics, only to find that all our theories were really only simplified pictures that worked only on a macroscopic scale. Pulling the threads of a few niggling oddities, which didn’t quite fit the picture, ultimately exploded into a complete destruction and rebuilding of our understanding of the universe. This could happen again.

This does tend to make the pursuit of hard science fiction seem a bit futile. For example, E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Skylark of Space” (written in the 1910s but only published in the 1920s) could certainly be considered hard science fiction at the time it was written—Smith’s day job was as a research chemist. The work drew upon then-current scientific theories with a different understanding of atomic structure, accurately predicting nuclear power but assuming that the fissile material would be copper, catalysed by a fictitious metal called ‘X’. “Skylark” also assumed that the titular spacecraft could accelerate to faster-than-light speeds by the simple expedient of saying ‘well Mr Einstein’s new theory is still controversial and unproven, looks like he was wrong after all’ (which was more reasonable in the 1910s than the 1920s!) This is a dramatic example but illustrates how quickly a hard science fiction story can look soft to a future generation.

Nonetheless, “Skylark” and other stories of this period approach the core fundamentals of science in a way that holds up today (such as how it treats things like vacuum pressure), in contrast to how much modern alleged science fiction (especially on TV) constantly makes silly mistakes due to being written without scientific oversight. An example would be spaceships portrayed as coasting to a stop when their engines cut out…when in a vacuum nowhere near any sources of gravity or any other force that would affect their momentum. This violation of Newton’s First Law would have been immediately spotted as absurd if one showed the footage to educated people from as many as three centuries before, yet still shows up today.

This isn’t to say that writers can always avoid being overtaken just by the expedient of not being lazy and ignorant, of course. “The Expanse” by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of a team of two writers) is an excellent example of a modern attempt at hard science fiction, albeit one deliberately influenced by the science fiction of the 1980s and one (commendably) not afraid to feature seemingly impossible science born of alien breakthroughs beyond human understanding. The physics of spaceflight is stringently kept to here and the writers did their best to maintain a coherent scientific setting, at least on the human side. But even here, their story’s setting was fundamentally based on the idea that water would be a rare commodity in the asteroid belt; the first book opens with the main protagonist as part of the crew of a freighter bringing ice there. Recently, as they wrote about in an article, NASA’s “Dawn” spacecraft found large amounts of water ice on Ceres and completely flipped those assumptions upside down.

As I said before: science fiction is a minefield! Past generations as recent as the 1990s (such as in Harry Turtledove’s “Worldwar” series) could populate nearby stars with whatever planets they wanted in a carefree manner—nowadays, with planetary systems being pinned down one way or the other by modern breakthroughs, it is rapidly becoming the case that writers can no more do so than they can invent extra continents like their 17th century predecessors.

Arguably the biggest change between the past and now, though, is the modern assumption that works of fiction must have consistent continuity, which has now become regarded as the norm in almost all genres of fiction. “Skylark” is a bad example here because Smith actually did try to maintain continuity in that series as he wrote sequels, despite the problems caused by his now outdated scientific models. However, most of his contemporaries would regard their stories as being one-off, isolated works, and that any problems caused by changes to science or society were essentially not relevant because by that point they’d have moved on to something else.

To belatedly come to the title of this article, American superhero comic books are a good example of how the shift towards continuity has caused problems generated by past assumptions. When they first emerged at the end of the 1930s, it was considered self-evident that each story was self-contained (indeed, it took a while for past events even within a story to be referenced, or villains to recur). Like the later shift from episodic to arc-based television (to simplify greatly) comics shifted from a business model of ‘must be comprehensible to the casual reader picking up issue #133 as their first one’ to ‘appealing to long-term consistent faithful fans who have read from the beginning’. Initially, superheroes created or owned by the same companies were not regarded as occupying the same shared universe (indeed, the idea of a fictional universe that wasn’t ‘our world, but with some fictional stand-ins’ was a new one). When crossovers did emerge (at first partly driven by patriotic World War 2 comics showing superheroes teaming up against the Nazis) there was nothing odd about one superhero comic being presented as a fictional comic within another’s world one week, only for the two heroes to team up the next week. Consistency was not expected and Hitler could be defeated every week in different ways.

Things have radically changed today, with the idea of a shared universe becoming the norm in the 1960s, with Marvel Comics often being the driver—and, appropriately enough, a new audience fifty years on have seen this love of crossovers and shared history in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. DC Comics also shifted towards this mindset. Whenever DC and Marvel acquired the rights to other characters previously owned by others, they were integrated and incorporated into the setting. DC brought in the characters owned by Fawcett Comics such as Captain Marvel/Shazam, and those by Charlton Comics such as Captain Atom and the Question. The desire to write an introductory series for the latter set of new characters eventually morphed into Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”, considered by many to be the greatest superhero comic of all time; tellingly, the story ended up being entirely unsuitable for the continuity-driven approach by killing off or otherwise dramatically affecting characters, and Moore had to create stand-ins instead of the new characters anyway.

This is a neat microcosm of how the continuity-driven, shared universe approach is often the enemy of drama because the dust always has to settle for the next adventure, the villains must always get away, characters who are killed off are inevitably brought back by future writers. DC Comics in particular have now reached the point where even completely unconnected characters featured in separate stories in the first 1930s Superman comics (such as two-fisted noir private eye Slam Bradley) have been brought into the shared comic universe. A modern reader picking up a DC comic for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that the writers devote more of their creative energy to trying to rationalise seven decades of continuity and iron out holes in it than in actually telling stories about superheroes fighting baddies and saving the world.

But the biggest problems arise when an element is considered integral to a character’s identity, yet persists after that element has become outdated in the real world, even as the character must now inevitably continue into the future. Reimaginings and re-envisagings can only go so far. Often the problems are associated not with the superhero’s actual powers and crime-fighting identity (though costumes born of 1930s visions of circus performers can look strange to modern eyes) but with their civilian secret identity—or even the concept of there being a believable civilian secret identity, given our increasingly watched and less private world. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took a huge gamble in 2008 when deciding to end the first “Iron Man” film with Tony Stark quixotically deciding not to have a secret identity after all—but it paid off. For some heroes, though, the secret identity is too integral to ignore. One cannot imagine Batman without Bruce Wayne or Spider-Man without Peter Parker (though the animated film Into the Spider-verse recently introduced a general audience to other options).

Bruce Wayne isn’t too threatened as we still have rich playboys (though not the 1930s style ones that influenced him) but many superheroes from Superman onwards have secret identities involving journalism, a career that has seen radical changes and whose very existence is arguably under threat. Clark Kent has found other places to change his costume since phone booths went out, but is he really Clark Kent without his job working as a reporter at the Daily Planet? Interestingly, writers in 1971 decided this 1930s-40s image was already getting outdated, and portrayed a shift in which Clark and Lois Lane were now working as TV news reporters for the fictional station WGBS.

However, after DC Comics did their first big ‘letting rationalising continuity drive story’ decision with “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in 1986, Clark Kent was reverted to his old Daily Planet job. This editorial decision was likely influenced by the fact that the Christopher Reeves Superman films had come out and been wildly popular since then, and had fixed an earlier image of the character in the minds of a wider audience. This tail-wagging-the-dog approach has recurred again and again in comics as popular films or TV media have regenerated an earlier image of characters in the minds of the general public, which has led comics to revert to that same image to sell to this new audience of film or TV watchers.

But the biggest problem with Clark Kent—pointed out since the 1960s at least—is to question how Superman can successfully pose as a mild-mannered reporter by no more disguise than a pair of glasses, a suit and perhaps slightly different hair. Writers have come up with all sorts of inventive explanations involving posture, acting, and (in the 60s, inevitably) magical Kryptonian glass in the glasses which create hypnotic waves or something. But the real answer can be found if one manages to find the earliest Superman comics from the 1930s. The early Superman was a master of disguise, a classic 1930s spy trope that now seems as outdated as the inevitable sinister fifth column of Nazi/Japanese sympathisers, or the airship-toting villain who dreams he is the reincarnation of Napoleon (as featured in a contemporary Batman story). Indeed, in the early stories Superman uses his disguise abilities about as often as he does his (then much more limited) superpowers! He is able to effortlessly take on the identity of a washed-up suicidal boxer to help him fight his way back up to a match that was rigged against him; an American football player spurned by his girlfriend; a Polish miner discriminated against by corrupt mine owners cutting corners on safety; and more. With him able to easily pass for strangers he’s just met by some means of unspecified makeup and props, nobody in the 1930s would question the assumption that he could also have a reporter identity that no-one would connect with Superman, even if photos of the latter had been as omnipresent as they would be in today’s world.

Today, though, our ideas of spy fiction have moved on, and the identity-stealing chameleon spy has become a discredited trope, often treated as a superpower in its own right. This is only one of many examples of how an idea in a work from a past decade—which would seem only outdated if viewed solely in its original context—can become blatantly plot-destructive if that character is forced to continue into a modern setting. We may look at others in the future…



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