Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: 2010!

I'm sure some people are going to look at the title to this entry and wonder why I'm plugging next year as a "Hidden Treasure." But 2010 is actually the 1984 sequel to the critically-acclaimed science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In my opinion, 2010 has always been unfairly overshadowed by its predecessor. While not as ground-breaking as Stanley Kubrick's work, it is still one of the most solid and thought-provoking works of science fiction put to film. Its director, Peter Hyam, made the wise decision not to try and emulate Kubrick but instead to create his own vision of the future using Clarke's sequel story.

As the title may suggest, it is nine years after the ill fated Discovery mission to Jupiter, and what happened is shrouded in mystery. Doctor Heywood Floyd (Roy Schieder, in probably his best role after Jaws) is selected to put together the American contingent of a joint American/Russian mission to the giant planet to find out what happened. And by 'Russian', I mean 'Soviet'; remember the film was made in 1984 and no one expected at the time that the USSR wasn't going to be around in the 21st Century. But watching the film nowadays, its just easier, at least for myself, to simply think of them as Russians.

The Russian-built Leonov spends two years in transit to Jupiter. As the vessel approaches, Floyd and his fellow Americans are wakened from cryosleep when the derelict Discovery is spotted abandoned but undamaged in a decaying orbit around the Jovian moon Io. The vessel is boarded and reactivated, including a befuddled and amnesiac Hal 9000. Apparently the AI has no memory of turning against the crew, and seems at least for now to be back to his old mellow, non-homicidal self.

Then both ships turn toward what everyone really came to Jupiter for: the alien Monolith. But that is only the first of many mysteries that pile up for the crew in quick succession: chlorophyll-bearing life forms are spotted on Europa; a mysterious but growing dark spot appears on Jupiter; and what might or might not be Dave Bowman is spotted on the Discovery, telling of 'something wonderful' about to happen in a few days. But if the Leonov and the Discovery is still at Jupiter when this 'something wonderful' happens, everyone aboard will die. And, oh yeah, WWIII is about to break out on Earth.

The movie takes all those plot strings and ties them together in a tight, crisp, storytelling package, and what that 'something wonderful' is at the end of the film is indeed quite a jaw-dropper. Not in the mind-bending psychedelic sort of way in the first film, but in much more visceral demonstration of just how far above humanity the aliens are.

Discounting what the insanely advanced monolith makers do, the science and space flight shown in the film is very hard-science and realistic. I especially like how it was one of the first movies to really show just how soil-your-pants scary real space travel may be for future travelers. One example is with the Leonov's fiery aerobraking maneuver to insert itself into Jupiter orbit. When we first see the interplanetary vessel, it looks bold, blocky, and impressive. But as it screams through Jupiter's outer atmosphere behind inflatable shielding, it looks like little more than a glowing dust speck against the immense horizon of the gas giant. This is intercut with shots on board, as Dr. Floyd and unnamed (but very cute!) female Russian crewmember hold onto each other in mutual terror as the ship seems ready to shake apart, even though he can't speak Russian nor she English.

And let me as a scifi technophile wax for a bit about the Leonov, one of the most smartly-designed fictional spaceships I've seen. Most futuristic spaceships are designed more to be sleek eyecandy than anything else, but the Leonov looks like an interplanetary vessel that might actually fly some day. The designers' attention to detail is apparent, from the ship's large outrigger communication dish to the twin, counter-rotating crew sections.

Also well done is the resolution of what happened to HAL 9000, and the intelligent computer's ultimate fate. His breakdown in the first film is explained, and fears of a second episode is one of the many points of tension as the story builds toward a climax, especially after he starts talking to apparent ghosts.

Perhaps one disappointment in the film is that the aliens go from unknowable enigmas in 2001, to being merely mysterious and a bit creepy here. That's inevitable as their motivation and methods become clearer in this film. I'm not giving much away by saying that they seem interested in seeding the universe with life, and that humanity (which the first movie implied were helped toward sentience by the Monoliths) was just one of their many interests along these lines.

If all this sounds like your kind of movie, go HERE for a copy of the DVD. The real 2010 is almost upon us. How better to celebrate it than by exploring an alternate version, one of thrilling space exploration, terrifying discoveries, and extraterrestrial contact?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fuel Is Expensive (Fiction)

A recent article I read reminded me of a short story I wrote a few years ago. Fuel Is Expensive was originally published in 2006 in Tales of the Talisman Volume 2 Issue 3. Its set in the not too distant future on Mars. Image courtesy NASA.

Fuel Is Expensive
By Paul Lucas

The maser drill slipped from Sam's fingers as a thousand needles of pain sliced into her skull. She fell to her knees in a rusty cloud of Martian dust, hands clawing at her faceplate.

The words returned, so familiar now after a dozen similar attacks, whispered in her mind by a fearful voice she couldn't quite recall. Fuel is expensive, it rasped.

Jesus and Buddha, what did it mean?

"Sam?" Ken's voice in her ear, tinny with radio noise. "Sam! You okay?"

The pain ebbed, the words faded. "I...think so. It just hit me all of a sudden."

"Another migraine?"

"Yeah. A real bastard too."

"Mission Control's going to freak. Thirty billion dollars to get here and we're hurting for four dollar aspirin."

She narrowed her eyes at him, standing a dozen meters away in his bulky white EVA suit. "Thanks. Obvious irony is so much comfort right now."

"All part of the astronaut service, ma'am. But seriously, go back to the hab and lie down. EVA is dangerous enough without a brain bleed. I'll go grab Getch and meet you back there. He can look you over again."

Sam grimaced. Getch had examined her every time she'd suffered through her attacks, but always found nothing physically wrong with her. The prevailing theory was that she was having an allergic reaction to the microfine dust creeping into everything after a month on Mars' surface, but nothing had come of it so far.

Sam methodically packed away the maser permafrost drill and trundled back to the Surface Habitat Module, a grayish, inflatable dome twenty meters across, their base and living quarters since landing on the dark-soiled Chryse Planitia in Mars' Northern hemisphere three weeks ago. A hundred meters behind it squatted their lander, a bulky steely polyp against the pale blue-pink Martian sky.

She waved at Getch on the far hillrise, doing a routine check on the automated fuel plant. Drawing on the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere and treating it with the water they mined from the Martian permafrost, they were slowly stockpiling methane fuel to use on the return trip home.

Getch waved back but was busy with a conversation with Ken on a private channel. Talking about her, no doubt.

Getch and Ken were decent enough guys. She had slept with both of them at one time or another on the nine-month trip out, even though that was technically a big regulations no-no. But on a very cramped, very dull voyage out, there was simply not much else to do. It was easy enough to loop old monitor vids of them sleeping separately to Mission Control back Earthside to cover up first one liaison, then the other. Who exactly that fooled was a matter of debate. The people at MisCon weren't idiots, after all, and could probably easily see through the ruse. But no one had said anything yet.

She stripped out of the vacc suit. It was a much lighter model than previous NASA space suits, even though this first flight to Mars was expected to encounter much heavier radiation exposure than any other manned mission. A NASA gearhead had lectured to her about some new breakthrough layer that provided superior shielding, but it always mystified her how they managed to make it so thin that she could never see it.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe her suit's shielding was wearing away or breaking up, causing the migraines as a preliminary stage to radiation sickness. She should mention the possibility to Ken.

She grunted as the pain in her head returned.

Fuel is expensive.

The words were the strangest part of her attacks. Why did they flash through her mind every time? And who did that strange voice belong to, speaking them?

Thankfully, this migraine was proving to be much less severe than the last one.

Focusing through the dull ache, she shucked her vacuum suit's thermal layer and undersheath and put on her oversized sleeping shirt. She knew from the previous incidents that Getch would want a full physical from her and there was little sense in making things difficult by getting fully dressed and then undressed again.

The headache wasn't going away.

She really should check the vacc suit's shielding while she waited. Sam reached for the vacc suit maintenance tools beside the airlock.

A thousand rusty knives stabbed behind her eyes.

Fuel is expensive.

She screamed.

Then stopped in mid-yell, the pain suddenly gone.

Her hands felt warm and wet. She looked down. They dripped with crimson up to her elbows.

Blood? Oh, God, was she hemorrhaging?

She blinked again.

The blood vanished, her hands normal.

Fuel is expensive.

Her vision swirled as she suddenly realized the hab was gone. She stood trapped in a small, bookish apartment back on Earth. Tidy shelves, cramped furniture, and small paintings drowning on bare pastel walls.

Someone rasped her name from a nearby room.

Bright blood pooled across meticulously polished floorboards, a trail leading to the darkened doorway.

Pain again. Her teeth ground so hard she heard enamel cracking.


- - -

Getch with his shaggy mane of blond hair peered down at her as she blinked her eyes open, a steely-cold stethoscope lodged rudely between her breasts. "Sam?" he asked tentatively. "You okay?"

She slowly sat up, cradling her head, holding onto his arm for support. "What...what happened?"

Both men were still in their EVA suits, their helmets orphaned on the floor by the airlock. "You tell us. We found you passed out on the deck. Was it another attack?"

"Yeah. The worst one yet." She told them about it, even the vision of the blood-stained apartment, shivering as she described how real it all felt. Ken held her fingers for reassurance as Getch pulled off his EVA suit's outer armor to continue his examination. As before, he found nothing wrong with her physically.

"I'll have to run more extensive tests," he said. "But there's only so much we can do here. I'll have to consult with MisCon. Those hallucinations worry me. Maybe we can see if there might be some psychological treatment."

She grunted noncommittally. "But it didn't seem like a hallucination. It all seemed so real."

"I'm sure it did. The brain's perception of reality is pretty fluid, actually. You'd be surprised what it can be fooled into thinking is real."

For a moment, just a brief flash, the apartment she had seen earlier appeared behind Getch, its green pastel walls bright with blood. She blinked and shook her head, and it was gone. She cradled her head in her hands. "Maybe I should just get some sleep."

The mission's medic nodded. "That would probably be best, actually. I'm gonna relieve you of any further duties until we can find out what's happening."

Sam started to protest but Ken cut her off. "I think that's for the best, too. Until we know what's up with all this we can't have you risking yourself."

Outranked and outvoted. "I guess," she sighed. "Just let me know if you find anything."

"You'll be the first I tell," Getch said as the two men helped her to her bunk.

- - -

Fuel is expensive.

She woke in the darkened hab, pain lashing through her. A quick glance at the wall clock and the reddish-black glow outside the small viewport told her Mars was sliding into night. Both men slept on their bunks nearby, separated from hers by a partially-pulled curtain. The pain didn't seem so bad this time. She slowly unknotted herself and made her way to the hab's fresher to take some pills.

As soon as the recycled water in the tiny sink began running, it hit her again.
Fuel is expensive.

She blinked and blood suddenly splashed back onto her arms, redder than Martian sands. She staggered back, mouthing a scream that would not come. She was in the apartment again, the plastic handle of a large carving knife curled into her fingers.

An inferno hotter than the sun crashed through her skull. She thrashed about, her limbs thumping uselessly against the thin plastic walls.

And she remembered.

- - -

Cold stone walls framing colder metal bars. The stench of the scratchy brown toilet. Huddling for hours on a stiff bunk, hating her cell, but hating even more what lay beyond it.

Pushed around at mess. Beaten in the laundry. Humiliated in the showers. Day after day after day. How could she survive thirty more years?

Then two mysterious men came to see here. Impeccable gray suits, their voices as crisp as their attire.

"Sheila Polara?" one asked. "Geological researcher? Did a graduate thesis on primordial Earth geochemistry?"

She gaped, then nodded slowly.

"How would you like to get out of here?"

A flurry of paperwork later, and she was outside, stepping into a taxi. She bawled like a little girl, her relief at escaping those hellish walls that intense. Neither of her primly-suited escorts made any move to comfort her.

An expansive office, severe right angles everywhere. Except for the huge round man behind the fortress of a desk, smelling faintly of sour milk.

His voice was a baritone sing-song, talking to her of a new identity, of limited emancipation, of a historic space mission. She blinked at him, bewildered. But she did not care. It was not prison. She readily agreed.

Then the training. Long, long days and weeks of studying, exercising, and testing, broken occasionally by flight training, exhausting survival courses, technical seminars by the hundred. She met her crewmates, Kentaro Hale and Thomas Getch, coming from hopeless criminal situations similar to hers. The three of them were to go to Mars.

Insanity. Three convicted felons, the first humans on another planet?

The men in the suits were evasive in their explanations. But no longer cold, in pain, and hungry, she could think much more clearly than when they had first brought her from her cell. Over many weeks she eventually pieced together that it was all about the fuel.

It was expensive.

She had traded prison for something far, far worse.

She told her companions, and they all balked. No more training, no more exercises, no more seminars, nothing. She quit. Better the mess and the laundry and the showers than this.

Then their new jailers broke out the needles. And the electrodes. And looked the other way when the beatings and the rapes began. A year-long ordeal of intense hypnotherapy and torture and mind control followed. They wanted perfect astronauts, and they were going to get them no matter what.

Starving, filthy, in agony in a frigid darkened cell, she repeated a mantra to herself over and over all through that year, concentrating as best she could through the drug-induced haze.

Rote memorization was used in schools for so long because it worked so well, wearing a groove in memory paths so deep that people could remember fifty years later things like Oliver Cromwell's middle name, the atomic weight of cesium, i before e except after c. The mantra whispered to herself a thousand, thousand times was a warning she only prayed would survive to whoever or whatever she became.

She didn't remember exactly when she had stopped being Sheila the convicted murderer and started being Sam the perfect astronaut mission specialist. All the horror from that year still cast too many shadows in her memory. Perhaps she would never know.

Fuel is expensive.

One final spike of pain, and the memories crashed to a stop. Darkness reclaimed her.

- - -

Again, she woke up on the examining table with Ken and Getch very worriedly looking down on her.

"Thank God," Ken said as she blinked her eyes open. "You okay Sam? You were out nearly two hours."

She looked at her two cremates, sighed heavily and hugged herself. Everything was so clear now, so lucid, as if it was the first time she had been truly awake in months. "I remember. My husband's name was Gray Valentin. Oh God, poor Gray..."

The men exchanged worried glances. "Um, you never mentioned being married, Sam," Ken said.

She got up and slowly pulled herself to the farside of the room. She looked out the tiny viewport at the fuel processor on the nearby hillock, illuminated by work lights. What she saw confirmed all her suspicions. Bastards.

"Fuel is expensive," she whispered. She had expected to be hit by a wave of agony, but nothing. "My own warning from a lifetime ago. But that's only half the sentence."

Ken walked over to her, laying his hands gently, almost fatherly, on her shoulders. "Sam, if you need to tell us anything..."

She sighed. "Five years ago--I think it was five years--I killed Gray. Stabbed him."


"We had this hideous fight when he finally blurted out all his sleeping around. We screamed each other hoarse for hours. Finally he slunk away to the bedroom, saying we'd talk more the next day. As soon as I heard him snoring I shuffled into the kitchen for a knife, then went into the bedroom. It slid in so easily. I only remember the first stab, but the police told me I did it twenty-eight more times. He woke up dying, begging for his life, but it was too late."

Ken and Getch stared at her, stunned. "Um, look, Sam, remember those hallucinations you were telling us about? Maybe they're getting worse. Maybe we can get MisCon to cut the mission short. Get you back Earthside at the earliest possible window."

She barked out a short, loud laugh. "NASA already knows all about the 'hallucinations,' Ken. Its why we're all here. Don't you remember?" Her laughter stopped. Of course he didn't. "We're never going back."

She looked over her shoulder and saw their uncomprehending expressions. For them it was too soon. The mission planners must have known their carefully-wrought psychological alterations couldn't last forever, but had time-tabled everything so that the mission would be over long before it became an issue. Getch and Ken would never have a breakthrough like hers until it was too late.

Her migraines were all too transparent a ploy now. A conditioned response. A primal distraction in case one of them began skirting the truth.

She abruptly changed the subject to tomorrow's schedule and the experiments they needed to run. Getch and Ken visibly relaxed, apparently relieved that her "episode" had passed. They were careful to avoid the subject of her odd behavior the rest of the night, but still looked at her with an odd mixture of concern and a little bit of fear.

When they settled in for sleep again, Getch sat at a chair beside her cot, in case she had a relapse. A sweet gesture. But not surprisingly, he was slumped and snoring within an hour.

Getch and Ken had been her friends on this long, long journey to Mars, even her lovers a few times. She knew they cared for her, and would probably do anything to help her. She owed them.

Sam quietly slipped out of her bunk to the equipment locker. There, she dug out the maser permafrost drill she had used earlier. She lugged it toward Getch snoozing in the chair.

Getch blearily fluttered his eyes open as she approached. "Sam, what--"

Sam pointed the drill and toggled the power switch. In a heartbeat Getch's face bubbled as his head was flooded with high-powered microwaves, his skull cracking open from the hideous steam pressure within. Before Ken could do more than stir at the disturbance she walked over and turned the drill on him.

She stared at their ruined bodies for many minutes before she collapsed to her knees, body-wrenching sobs ripping through her for the rest of the night.

At dawn, Sam scrubbed herself long and hard, damning the water rationing, donned her EVA suit, and went outside to lock down all the experiments. When she returned, she reprogrammed the three mission comsats in orbit to begin transmitting, in a non-stop broadband loop, the next fifteen minutes that would be recorded by the hab's internal cameras. She made sure Ken and Getch's corpses were clearly in view.

She was sure that many sites on Earth would pick up the transmissions. By the time NASA got the comsats back under control, hopefully not for weeks thanks to her hastily-hacked programs, the truth would be out.

"It was all about fuel," she said to the cameras. "Spacecraft fuel is very expensive, especially for a manned interplanetary mission. That's why a Mars mission was talked about for decades, but nothing was ever done. Hauling the fuel out of Earth's gravity well and then lugging it all the way to Mars and back would cost many billions of dollars no one wanted to spend."

"One plan was to manufacture methane fuel out of materials on-site. But every automated probe sent to test the feasibility of that failed miserably. A chemical quirk in the Martian environment no one had foreseen prevented it.

"But budget cuts were looming, and both the public and politicians sniveled for a return to Apollo-era glory. The answer: a high-publicity Mars mission. But let's see...how to cut costs? The mission would have to carry all the fuel it would need to get out there and back. Tens of billions of dollars to haul hundreds of tons of exotic fuel on a hundred-million-mile round trip. That would break the back of the cash-strapped space program right there.

"But what if they could cut the fuel costs directly in half? Why not only supply just enough fuel to get there, but not to get back?

"Sounds good, right? Now all you have to do is sign up a crew for a one-way mission. You'd think that would be the hard part, but some wily budget genius found a way. Take people who would never be missed--say, prison lifers who happened to have the right technical backgrounds. Train them, give them new, PR-friendly IDs, and send them off.

"But of course its bad PR to have your crew morose and rebellious over their imminent deaths. So make the crew believe the lies. Through months and months of brain washing, drugs, hypnosis, torture. Drill it into their brains that they never committed any crimes, that the astronaut training program had been their life-long goals. From that moment on, to themselves and to the rest of the world, they were heroes.

"And because they were not coming back, other means of cutting the budget could be taken, like skimping on the radiation protection in EVA suits, then lying about some new non-existent breakthrough layer that we could ever find. Let your suicide crew believe that the fuel processing plant was not really just a pile of soldered-together pipes and an empty tank. Let them believe they would not die a long, lingering, painful death as the food and water and air ran out and that the people back Earthside would just cover it up with some invented system failure, then paint them as noble sacrifices to squeeze out more taxpayer dollars for the budget."

She brought the tip of the maser drill to her temple. Tears brimmed. She was thankful that she at least had given Getch and Ken the mercy of dying quickly and painlessly, when they still believed that they were heroes.

"After all, fuel is expensive..."

Her finger tensed on the toggle switch.

"...But martyrs are cheap."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Re-Envisioning Space:1999

A number of sites and forums observed that yesterday, September 13, 2009 was the ten year anniversary of the nuclear waste repository on the Moon detonating, blasting Earth's only natural satellite out of orbit and sending it careening deep into interstellar space. The fate of the 311 personnel trapped on Moonbase Alpha remains unknown.

Or rather, it would have been, if we lived in the universe of
Space:1999, a quirky but fondly-remembered science fiction series from the mid-1970s. I watched it religiously as a kid, but I have to admit it did not age as well as Star Trek from a few years earlier. There were some ambitious scripts and ideas--I think it was the first on-screen work of science fiction to feature a wormhole in one episode, for example--but the shoestring budget, sometimes wooden acting, and the gonzo approach to a lot of its scripts tended to detract from that.

But the basic idea--a ragtag band of reluctant humans riding a rogue world into the vast unknown of the universe--is still a slambang one, rife with tons of story potential. It just needed a better execution. In this age of restarts and re-envisionings, I'm surprised Space:1999 hasn't been picked up for one yet.

So how would one go about reworking it to make it more palatable? Let's call our new version Space: 2099 and set it in that year. That gives us nine decades of history and technology to play around with.

We can have the same set up: a large international base on the moon, named Alpha. But since its set much farther in the future, we can make it bigger than the original Space:1999 Moonbase. The 2099 Moonbase has over a thousand personnel, and there are other facilities around the moon as well, smaller bases, observatories, and most importantly, strip-mining operations extracting Helium-3 for power and other vital elements from the lunar surface.

Five years before the series opens, astronauts discover an eons-old facility of obvious alien origins buried deep on the farside of the Moon. The facility holds a number of vast mysterious machines of unknowable purpose. And, much to their horror and delight, human explorers also discover vast quantities of antimatter buried even further into the moon beneath it.

On September 13th, 2099, investigations into the alien machines go horribly wrong. A vast explosion shakes the entire satellite. Only there is very little destruction--the antimatter functioned as an immense Explosive Power Generator to feed a gargantuan wormhole generator. Thus, we can have a parallel to the original series of a massive explosion hurtling the Moon away from Earth, but with a slightly more logical way to get it to the interstellar adventure part quickly.

The Moon arrives in a new solar system through the temporary wormhole, entering into orbit around a gas giant just as the gateway back to earth collapses. Of course, the new star system is an odd one, seemingly created artificially, with dozens of life-bearing worlds from around the galaxy, and hundreds of moons and asteroids, giving the crew plenty of mysteries to unravel and new worlds to explore. Who created the artificial star system? Was it the same people who created the device that brought them there? What are the other inhabitants of the system like? Are they trapped there like the Alphans are? And can they ever find a way to return to Earth, if they can even find out where it is?

And in this age of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, we can have a lot of good, heavily-character-oriented stories as they unravel these huge interconnected mysteries. A lot of the characters in the original were a bit bland; it would be nice to see things spiced up with the updated version. If drek like Moonfall and Defying Gravity can get greenlighted, how about another quality scifi show with a proven, nerd-pleasing premise?

Some caveats, though: Don't mess with the Eagles, the all-purpose modular spacecraft used in the original series (and pictured above.) In my opinion, they are among the best designed fictional spacecraft ever created. Even the shows worst detractors liked the Eagles' sleekness, believability, and raw functionality. They would be as iconic to the show as the Enterprise would be to Star Trek.

And also, keep the beginning sequence, or at least the spirit of it. It started with these majestic instrumentals, showing the lead actors. But then it cut to an Eagle plummeting and exploding on the Lunar surface, segueing into a fast-paced funky theme that sticks in my head to this day. A quick montage of teaser scenes followed in quick succession, ending with SEPTEMBER! 13! 1999! flashing by and showing the moon breaking out of orbit. If the rest of the series had been as cool as its opening, it might have had a much longer life.

Anyway, that's just some ideas. I doubt we'll ever see a real Space:1999 remake, but its fun to play around with the concept anyway.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Japan's New Space Freighter

Click HERE for the full story on the launch of Japan's new H-II Transfer vehicle from the BBC.

The space freighter, together with its Kaguya moon probe and its announcement of a project to develop solar power satellites, demonstrates what I hope to be a trend of Japan taking much more of an initiative in space. Last year, JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency, the island nation's equivalent of NASA) announced much more ambitious agenda in the years to come. Beforehand, Japan as a space power was primarily a relatively safe but unimaginative satellite-launcher. Now it seems to be blossoming into much more, and may be on its way to becoming a major space power in a decade or two.

Go HERE for an interview with Keiji Tachikawa, president of JAXA, for more information on Japan's future space plans.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Just How OLD is the Flash?

I was watching Spider-Man 2 on TV recently, and thought back to the other superheroes I enjoyed when I was younger. One of my favorites was the Flash; specifically, the Wally West version.

But one thing always bothered me: Just how old was he?

I don't mean how long its been since the character was created (the first Flash comic appeared in 1940), or how old he physically appeared to be (Wally West, like most superheroes, was supposed to be perpetually in his mid-to-late 20s.) But rather: how much subjective time has he lived through?

The Flash's main power, of course, is speed. He can do everything and anything fast. He can react and think at speeds no human--or too many other superhumans, even Superman--can match. And therein lies the rub.

He lives through every single action he performs at superspeed. He has to, or else he could easily end up plastering himself all over a wall at half lightspeed. He's aware of every single step he takes as much as we are of ours, even if he can take a million such steps a second.

One of the most common feats he performed in the comics was running around the globe in a handful of second or less. That's 25,000 miles. Assuming one didn't get tired or had to stop to sleep, eat, or run to the latrine, how long would that take a normal person? At a breakneck running speed of 10 mph, that's 104 days. And the Flash lives through every step, even if to us it takes only a heartbeat. That's 3 1/2 months, subjectively. In some storylines, he does something similar dozens of times. He must burn through years of subjective time every time he fights a supervillain.

But that's just an average day at the office. What about some of his more extraordinary feats? In one story, he evacuated a threatened city of a quarter million single-handedly in a few seconds. How long would that take a single person? Assuming he could carry out one to two people per trip, that's something that could take years.

In another story, he had to tune every single radio on Earth to a certain frequency in a fraction of a second. Every single radio, in every country in every city, in every home and apartment and business and military base and ship and airplane in the world. Billions of individual units. If you had to do all that on foot, you're looking easily at a centuries-long project.

Now take all this, and combine all the adventures and battles he's had throughout his comic, plus guest appearances in other comics like JLA and such.

Now once again: Just how OLD is the Flash?

He's had to have lived through thousands, if not millions, of years of subjective time. Every time he uses his superspeed to battle a supervillain, he must be burning through lifetimes of subjective existence.

Given the nature of the world he lives in, where his best friends include a shapeshifting alien telepath and a magical greek goddess, the fact that he may be effectively immortal between ticks of the clock is not really an unbelievable development. But it does raise some rather disturbing possibilities.

For example, why hasn't he gone insane? He's not only millennia old subjectively, but he's lived through most of that time doing very repetitive tasks, like running or carrying things or turning radio knobs. It would be the next best thing to sensory deprivation, and would drive even the most resilient mind bonkers. Or maybe he has gone insane many, many times over the years, only he lives in such an accelerated timeframe that he was the only one who was ever aware of it.

Second, why does he bother with human relationships? Every time he went into battle, he'd be away from his loved ones for so long according to his own perceptions it would be difficult for emotional bonds to really persist. Other writers have pointed this out, but I think in the context of his millennia-long subjective existence I think it might be especially true: most of the time he lives in a world of very slow-moving statues. The periods where he can de-speed and spend normal time with his wife and friends would only be a minuscule fraction of his total subjective existence. Would they even seem real to him after a while?

Anyway, just something to think about next time you pick up a comic book.