I could go on and on about totalitarianism. You might say that I already have. There are reasons for that, though, for I think that totalitarianism has some bearing on the question of a monster for the twenty-first century.
Like I've said, I think the monster of the twenty-first century is a hybrid--part supernatural, part scientific, and partly drawn from real life. By embracing science, we have all decided that the supernatural simply won't do. Every phenomenon must have a scientific, rationalistic, materialistic explanation. The problem is that the scientific monster lacks atavistic power, and so we return to the supernatural monsters of the past. Physically (as opposed to intellectually) terrifying, they lurk beyond the edge of the firelight, forever seeking to kill and devour us. In his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," H.P. Lovecraft wrote: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Fear was with us at the beginning, as depicted in the opening wordless sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fear is still with us today, despite all the assurances and material comforts offered by science. In other words, despite our living in a scientific age, our monsters are essentially the same supernatural monsters of old--often undead, always preying upon us--dressed up with a scientific explanation.
Our monsters are also drawn from real life. They must be, for we can't have supernatural monsters in a scientific age (as Fritz Leiber, Jr., pointed out). At the same time, the scientific monster has failed to manifest itself. So what is left? In my taxonomy of monsters, I created a category for real-life monsters, explained by science. It includes the psychopath and the totalitarian. (1) Like the psychopath, our monsters are among us, look like us, and prey upon us. But because a psychopath is presumably a human being, he must dehumanize us before he kills us. In other words, he turns us into an object first, for I think we're not well made for killing each other if we recognize each other as human beings. Inhuman monsters, monsters from the outside, were never faced with that dilemma.
The problem with the psychopath is that there is only one of him. Not "Always more of us, fewer of you," but always more of us and upon his capture and execution, fewer of him. That's where the totalitarian comes in. The totalitarian is essentially a psychopath with political power. Armed with a powerful idea, he is able to--or I should say required to--recruit followers to his creed. "Always more of us, fewer of you." In so doing, he must dehumanize his followers, not only so he can oppress, enslave, and kill them (if necessary), but also so he can turn them into a soulless, regimented, and entirely uniform mass. The perfect follower is like a robot or zombie.
I have also written so much about totalitarianism because of the questions facing us in science fiction and in the real world. The first question is this: Is science fiction dying? Some say yes, some no. I'm inclined to say no, if only for the reason that we live in a science fiction world. More and more every day, speculative ideas are placed before us. What if everyone had his own personal fleet of nano-drones that he could use to spy on his neighbors? What if everyone had a cellphone not in her hand but implanted in her brain? What if you could choose your own genes at any time of the day or night, thus changing your identity and appearance at will? The possibilities are endless. I'm also inclined to say that science fiction isn't dying because it is so pervasive, seemingly in every movie, TV show, comic book, and video game. The science fiction of today might not be the science fiction of the 1950s through the 1970s (2), but it seems to be thriving, two of its sub-genres in particular.
"There are two forces in the world, entropy and energy," says I-330, the rebel in the novel We. "One leads into blessed quietude, to happy equilibrium, the other to the destruction of equilibrium, to torturingly perpetual motion." In her formulation, entropy--"blessed quietude," "happy equilibrium"--is represented by the United State, with the Well-Doer at its head, in other words, a dystopian, totalitarian society. Energy on the other hand can be all kinds of things. A free and rising society is energetic. So is a society in revolt or rebellion, at war, or simply seeking to survive.
It's not quite a perfect fit, but those two poles, entropy and energy, are represented in science fiction today by two popular sub-genres, dystopia and apocalypse. Both may result from decadence in a society. Both may also represent opposing forces, not in society, but in the individual. Dystopia is totalitarian. It is the fantasy of the Leftist or Statist while a nightmare for the rest of us. Dystopia is also entropic: a perfect, static, well-ordered society of undifferentiated and obedient masses. (3) Apocalypse on the other hand is chaotic and individualistic. It, too, is a fantasy, though not necessarily something wished for. With an apocalypse and its aftermath, society becomes disordered and returns to basic things. It's every man for himself. Only the fittest survive. There are aspiring totalitarians in the world today. There are also people preparing for an apocalypse.
By definition, a decadent society is lacking in energy. It seems to me that the only possible end is dissolution, either by the creation of a totalitarian society (thus, by I-330's formulation, entering a state of entropy), by war, rebellion, or revolution (thus restoring energy), or by violent catastrophe (thus a return to beginnings). There is reason to believe we're living in a time of decadence. Our fantasies extend to those three possibilities. (4)
Now enters the zombie.
(1) I overlooked a couple of real-life monsters. One is the cultist. The other is the microbe. I'll write about the cultist after I finish this series and the microbe before.
(2) That might be why the question is asked: Is science fiction dying? It could be simply a question of nostalgia with a hint of decadence.
(3) Remember here the words of D-503: "It is inconceivable! It is absurd! Is it not clear to you that what you are planning is a revolution? Absurd because a revolution is impossible! Because our--I speak for myself and for you--our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. Everybody knows that." Remember also the words of Carlos Fuentes: "Perfect order is the forerunner of perfect horror."
(4) Some science fiction writers project a dystopian or decadent society into outer space. I'm not sure such a thing is possible. Reaching for the stars requires vigor--energy. When our society was more vigorous, we first imagined going into outer space through science fiction, then we realized it through our manned spaceflight program. Today, we are unable to send a man or woman into space without the help of a decadent society, Russia. What does that say about us and our future? In We, D-503 is building a rocketship to travel to planets that might still be "in the primitive state of freedom." The Soviet Union also had manned spaceflight, but it collapsed before ever reaching the moon. It's worth noting that at about the same time Yevgeny Zamyatin was writing We, the Bolsheviks were waging war against Poland in an attempt to spread their revolution into Europe. With that, the rocketship Integral can be interpreted as a symbol of Marxist-Leninism. The Bolshevik offensive in Poland failed miserably. We can be eternally grateful to the Poles for saving the West not once but twice from a totalitarian system: in 1920 against the advancing Bolsheviks, and in 1683, when they defeated Muslim Turks at the Battle of Vienna.
Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley