Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Nightmares packaged to order

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, commentary, syntheses, surveys

I just had to show you the cover of this one (from Amazon's sales page). This has to be one of the best "bug-eyed monster" paintings from Sci-Fi's golden age. I don't know the original provenance of this cover art, but the copyright is now held by the Wood River Gallery (the 2006 date makes me think the rights cover the entire layout, and that the BEM artwork is old enough to be public).

OK, so what scares you? I grew up being taught how to grab my knees under my school desk so I could kiss my ass goodbye for a nuclear attack. What formula did all the pulp SF mags use? It was mainly Campbell's Dictum: "Pose a problem, then fix it. Do it in 5,000 words or less." For a novel, the author was allowed no more than two sub-problems and 40,000 words.

There were problems aplenty for the writers of 1950s SF to mine: nuclear, germ, and chemical warfare; the grandson of Eniac that would run your life; the Red and Yellow perils—indeed, rampant xenophobia of all sorts—; "big Brother"; renegade robots. Prior to the 1940s, there was plenty of writing about "ultimate weapons", but few guessed such a weapon would be atomic or thermonuclear. A few who did were investigated, as far back as 1935. The nuclear warhead became the enfant terrible of Sci-Fi once the first nuclear attack actually happened. The Cold War was fueled by MAD fears, and our fiction followed right along.

Along the way, we also scared ourselves with alien abduction, giant insects and lizards, mutant superheros and supervillains, and various vague plagues. Today we have a host of new things to fear: AIDS, SARS, West Nile, and Ebola among the plagues; a rapidly-growing list of smaller nations that are developing or have developed "the bomb", or that plan to; Frankenfoods and other genetic experiments that we expect to go awry...and it is certain that some of our experiments will go awry.

All this and more Heather Urbanski covers in this, her expanded PhD thesis, Plagues, Apocalypses, and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares. She proposes the Nightmare Model to provide structure to her work. While much speculative fiction, from "hard" science fiction to the SF-Fantasy mixes that are most popular today (e.g. Star Wars), to sword-and-sorcery that seems to fill a good third of the "science fiction" shelves at my local library...while much of it is escapist and oriented positively, well more than half deals with a threat that must be averted.

The biggest threats in Jules Verne's work were either technological challenges that were risky in themselves, or overwhelming natural forces, or a few disgruntled villains. By contrast, today's threats tend to be unforeseen results of our good intentions. The Nightmare Model covers these in particular, under three heads and seven major areas:
  • Science and Technology: Nuclear War; Information Technology; and Biology
  • Power: Power of the Individual and Power of the State
  • The Unknown: Monsters, Aliens, and "Other Beings"; and Progress
Cautionary tales regarding each of these have saturated print, film, and small screen media. Consider these seven terms:
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • Colossus
  • Andromeda Strain
  • Darth Vader
  • Big Brother
  • Alien
  • Modern Times
Each is the title of a book, film, or TV episode (or all 3) that relates to the seven nightmares, in order. Consider just one, Colossus. I don't remember the name of the movie made from the book, but the title character is a computer system that really does take over the US, while its Russian counterpart takes over Europe (the Far East is ignored). I've worked with computers since 1968. In 1986 my uncle asked me, "Do you think computers could take over the world?" I replied, "They already have. Most people can't do simple addition now, without their calculator. Soon we will all wear small computers that do so much for us, we'll die if the battery runs out." Today this statement is nearly true.

Colossus is dated and obsolete. We have new fears, and are justifiably concerned that the next gadget after the iPhone will have more brains than most of us do.

It is sad but true that writing about our favorite stories is less compelling than the stories themselves. Nonetheless, Ms Urbanski's thesis bears consideration and if we might say, "So what?" about the Nightmare Model, it is simply because the model is right, particularly in its added provision: being entertained into thinking about our fears goes a long way toward dispelling them.

No comments: