Awhile back, I used the Cat in the Hat's process of calculatus eliminatus to narrow ever so slightly the monster of the twenty-first century by striking the cryptozoological monster from the list. A few days ago, I suggested that the machine-monster is also not a good candidate. The reason for eliminating the machine-monster is that a monster of that type is merely a tool or an extension of the human mind. Whatever a machine can do to us, a person can do first, and it takes a person to tell the machine to do it. There are some people who believe that machines--specifically computers--do represent a threat, if only they can reach self-consciousness. I wouldn't count that out. But if a human programmer doesn't tell a computer to oppress, enslave, or kill people, the computer would have to come up with the idea itself. I can imagine that such a thing is possible. But it's still a long way off. I hope.
So, like the cryptid, the machine-monster is out.
Here is my taxonomy of monsters:
- The Supernatural Monster--Devil, demon, ghost, vampire, werewolf, ghoul, incubus, succubus, etc.
- The Mythological and Folkloric Monster--Giant, cyclops, dragon, kraken, ogre, troll, etc.
- The Scientific Monster--Man-made monster (e.g., Frankenstein's monster), mutant, space alien, invisible monster, interdimensional monster, android, robot, cryptozoological monster or cryptid, degenerate human, etc.
- The Real-Life Monster, explained and/or justified by science or pseudoscience--Psychopathic killer, totalitarian.
I think we can all agree that mythological and folkloric monsters, for all their charm, are clearly out of the running. I think space aliens, invisible monsters, and interdimensional monsters are also out. The obvious reason for eliminating them is that there isn't any evidence that they exist. But there may be an even better reason. As I wrote yesterday, science fiction that looks forward to the future and outward into the universe appears to be on the wane. (We don't even have a way of getting people into orbit anymore.) In its place, there is a turning inward, an inversion, a collapse into solipsism, as in some older works by Robert A. Heinlein (read "They" right now!) or in the newer Matrix movies. Everyone is engrossed in his own electronic navel. Everyone claims as her most significant accomplishment a lot of "likes" on Facebook. And to make up for that meager sense of accomplishment, everyone inflates his résumé and credentials to the size of a dirigible. The expression used to be "the cult of the self." Even that has been diminished to a rampant cult of the selfie. If the interior is all that exists (as in an infant), how can anything like an alien or an interdimensional monster come in from the outside? There is no outside.
Time was when monsters were from the outside. They existed beyond the firelight, in trackless lands, deep in forests, caves, hovels, and ruins. If you stayed indoors at night, or within a circle of light, or on well-traveled paths, you might never meet one. Monsters also tended to be solitary. There was only one Cyclops, one Beast of Gevaudan, one Frankenstein's monster. We might fear him, but he might also fear us. Because he was solitary and the only one of his kind, the monster might be incapable of recruiting more monsters. Once you killed him or chased him away, there might never be another. Significantly, vampires are not in that category. And most monsters were recognizable as monsters. If Grendel had put on a tunic, jerkin, and leggings and had strolled into town, the Geats would still have known him. Again, significantly, vampires are not so easily recognized.
Now monsters are different. Although they may come from the outside, they are now on the inside, inside the city gates, living among us, indistinguishable from us, at least at a glance. Our monsters must now look human. Also, our monsters cannot be solitary. In being solitary, they are weak. In numbers, they are strong. For that reason, the lone psychopathic killer is not a compelling monster for the twenty-first century. (His political counterpart is however.) Finally, our monsters must be able to recruit more of their own kind. They must be driven by hunger (as in Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend), the desire to reproduce (as in Jack Finney's book The Body Snatchers), or an animating idea (as among totalitarians) to follow the command "Always More of Us and Fewer of You."
Copyright Terence E. Hanley 2014