A while back I did a few articles regarding “science horror“, or works where the tropes of both SF and horror are blended together to create a gory speculative fun house. Recently, however, I began to think about the lessons learned from the experience and wondered: why are we afraid of monsters? Let’s break down some of the classic horror monsters that worm their way into SF:
These shambling monstrosities symbolize the primal human fear of death. They are unstoppable and emotionless killers. It doesn’t matter if a zombie was your spouse while alive because years of marriage won’t stop them from ripping the flesh off your bones. When they are in numbers, they are an irresistible tidal wave of hungry death, ready to topple civilizations.
At least that’s what they want you to think. Any zombie apocalypse story is full of plot holes, the biggest one being that they all take place on a timeline where Romero never made Night of the Living Dead. Thus most characters are blissfully unaware of how to deal with the dead rising from their graves. Even if zombies were realistic, there are numerous reasons why a zombie apocalypse would fail before it even began. Barriers to a successful zombie victory range from the weather to the lack of basic awareness of their surroundings.
The above, however, deals with zombies on a global scale. On a personal level, it is ridiculously easy to deal with zombies, regardless of their numbers. The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks details how you can survive a zombie outbreak and you don’t need to be a katana-weilding Michonne from Walking Dead to do it. In fact most of tips are pretty common sense suggestions. For example, why run from a zombie that can only shamble after you? Walking at a brisk pace can put distance between you and the largest zombie horde. Even the primary means of dispatching a zombie, shooting them in the head, is not asking too much of you considering even a living human can survive being riddled with bullets.
Of course this assumes the zombies are the slow moving type. What if they are running at you like the zombies in 28 Days Later or the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Look at it this way: if human wanted to kill you, they come at you behind with a knife or shoot at you from a distance. Either way, they can end your life without seeing it coming. A fast-moving zombie is gracious enough to let you know he is trying to kill you by running at you screaming/moaning giving plenty of time for you to seek safety or end the threat. You don’t need to be part of SEAL Team 6 to knock out this zombie. All you need is cool head and a minimum of training.
Horror’s ultimate super-predator, the vampire. Immortal and powerful, they hunt us for our very life essence. We are like cattle to the Nosferatu and challenging them can only mean death for you and your compatriots. Their reign of darkness is…sorry I couldn’t finish writing that without laughing.
I mean have you ever heard of a monster with so many ways to kill it? Sunlight, silver, garlic, holy symbols running water? I’m surprised vampires don’t spend all of their time in a plastic bubble. You can even kill them in normal ways like decapitation, drowning, burning or diving something really sharp through their heart. Considering the advancement in human technology I am pretty sure I could cut a vampire in half with a M134 Minigun, regardless if it is loaded with silver bullets. I also wouldn’t mind seeing what happens if you throw a vampire out of spaceship’s air lock or tie them to an atom bomb and then push the big red button.
I realize modern vampire fiction (Interview with the Vampire, Preacher, and, I hate to even admit it, Twilight) have done away with the traditional zombie weaknesses, but they are all still left with the primary flaw all vampires possess: their need to blood. In fact, they seem to be addicted specifically to human blood, meaning that on a regular basis they put themselves into harm’s way by hunting the most dangerous game. For example. let’s say you are hungry for a steak. Instead of going to the local supermarket, you find the nearest farm and shoot a cow. Now assuming the farmer doesn’t shoot you back, you probably are going to be hearing from the boys of blue, especially if this becomes a habit. Now assume it is a human dying on a regular basis. Even if the police aren’t willing to believe its a vampire, the tools used to track a serial killer can work just as well. Things are even worse if the rules of your vampire universe require everyone you feed on to become a vampire (I Am Legend and ‘Salem’s Lot). This means everytime a vampire feeds, they create a new vampire. You might as well put a huge sign saying “Insert Stake Here”!
Then there is the ultimate price of immortality, as seen is such works as Anno Dracula. Ignoring the emotional trauma caused by seeing all of your loved ones die while you continue on with your undead life, you lose out on the human drive to make the world a better place before you die. We can disagree all we want about what the ultimate goal is, but it is our short life that inspires people to create and change before it is too late. When you are immortal, you become complacent and unable to keep up with advancements. Just as grandpa has problems operating the DVD player, think about how far behind a centuries old vampire from Transylvania has. A normal human doesn’t have that problem. A human, no matter how short our life is, can keep up with change and find the best weapon to defeat any foe, even a vampire.
Technology continues to advance at a faster and faster rate. Machines and computers are increasingly becoming a necessary part of our daily lives. They are becoming smarter…and some say too smart. It is only a matter of time before they rise up and kill us all!
Or not. Assuming someone is stupid enough to program that much autonomy in an artificial intelligence, you still need to find a reason for the machines to think the world needs 7 billion less humans. They don’t need food, sleep, money or sex (pretty much all the things humans kill over). They are almost completely separated from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Okay, so they need energy, but with declining costs for renewable energy, it is unlikely we are going to see a thinking machine with a diesel engine in the near future. In fact, future AIs will be virtually immortal. Perhaps in the early days of SF a robot would be afraid of “dying” when they only had their clunky body to inhabit. Now with the Internet and the planned nationwide wireless network, an AI could just upload itself when it loses its body and wait for the meat bags to make it a new one.
But what if the singularity happens and we suddenly find ourselves inhabiting a world with super-intelligent god-like machine? First, I don’t think it is wise to assume that just because someone or something is smarter than you, it wants to kill you. We might not like ants, but its not like we spend our days squishing every bug we see. A significantly advanced AI probably would have even less reason to kill humans than the more primitive models I referenced above. They have lost all dependence on us, meaning that not only are they free, but also now equal with us. If we treats robots well they have no reason to get nasty.
That is a big if. Humans can be pretty vicious and sometimes for the dumbest reason. It is already being predicted that robots are going to take away jobs from humans. What do you think is going to happen when millions of unemployed people struggling to get by see all those shiny robots working the jobs they did? Even today we see people being killed as witches because of economic jealously. It wouldn’t be hard to make the same transition for a soulless machine. That is one of the reasons why Animatrix in some ways was better than the actual Matrix films. If there is going to be a robot holocaust, we will start it and the robots who will likely lose.
The ultimate enemy of humanity. They are coming across the gulf of stars to wipe us from the face of the universe. Even our greatest minds fear them. The extraterrestrial menace can only be defeated by staunch human defenders willing to sacrificing everything to save our beloved homeworld.
If you haven’t caught on to the theme of this article by now, you’re hopeless. Even if you somehow could get past the light barrier, travelling to a distant world is expensive. Just putting a human in orbit cost over $70 million, think how much it would cost to put an army with all of its weapons and spare ammunition up there. Ignore the costs for a second, the next question to answer is why? For our resources? The aliens could get it easily from their system’s asteroids. Living space? There are estimated 10 billion planets like ours and that is assuming the aliens could survive in our atmosphere and don’t have terraforming technology that will allow them to make a lifeless world livable for them. What about us? What if they wanted to enslave us or (Gasp!) eat us?!?! Any aliens sufficiently advanced to travel across the stars is likely to have access to robots of their own, which would be more efficient and unlikely to rebel (see above section on robots). Furthermore, the aliens have likely evolved to eat a specific diet found on their planet. Our flesh is likely poison to them.
What about ideology? One of the hypothetical answers to the Fermi paradox does suggest that one of the reasons we haven’t seen any aliens is because there is a race of intelligent aliens systematically wiping out any civilization it finds. This idea has shown up in SF before including the Heritage Trilogy and its sequels by Ian Douglas, and the Revelation Space universe by Alastair Reynolds. Still it is kind of a stretch once you think about it. It assumes at least one species rose up without challenge and immediately started wiping out every other civilization they could find without destroying themselves in the process. Any lessor ideology (politics or religion), would require a homogeneous species completely united in the goal of spreading their philosophy across the stars. Considering how fractured us humans are, that seems unlikely. What is more likely is for aliens, if they ever happen to be in our neighborhood, to completely ignore us like they did in Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
Let’s face it, if anyone is going to invade us, it will be our (relatively speaking) next door neighbors. Humans have a pretty blood-soaked history with about 8% of our recorded history war-free. Now with ICBMs, cruise missiles and unmanned drones, it is not going to be from E.T.’s jerk of brother raining death down from the sky, but from a country that is just bigger and stronger than your home is.
That brings us to the final member of this list.
Every example above I showed you how humans are more dangerous than the monsters that haunt the pages of our favorite books. We are frightening. It is the reason why zombies stay in their graves, vampires never leave the dark, robots play dumb and aliens avoid this dirty, blue blackwater.
Here be monsters.