It’s October- a month in which many enjoy putting the grotesque and grisly on display in their homes, businesses, and personal fashion choices. What is it that people love so much about Halloween? What do the symbols of our fear say about us? Science fiction is known for featuring grotesque and creepy monsters. The genre has a long history of being associated with pulp “sci-fi” that focuses on a familiar-looking, humanoid protagonists defeating a different-looking, alien monster.
More thoughtful science fiction, though, often turns that trope on its head. While human or humanoid characters may still be repulsed by other types of creatures, this repulsion does not reflect on these Others, but on the inner biases of the protagonists. What then, are the real monsters? Are they the robots and aliens, or the fears of the human characters?
In Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking classic, Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein decides to experiment with electricity and animation. The result is a sentient being. The only problem is, the creature is hideous. It looks like death warmed over. In a way, it is death warmed over. Dr. Frankenstein reacts purely out of fear, and runs from the creature. The monster, however, is a sympathetic being who desires the understanding and love of his creator. Dr. Frankenstein’s disgust for the creature is the real antagonist of the story. His repulsion for his creation drives it to do all the monstrous things that it ends up doing.
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game paints a similar picture of human disgust and loathing. This time, the subject of humanity’s bigotry is a race of insect-like aliens known to Earth as “the buggers”. They have a very collective society, in which the knowledge, will, and life of an entire community is vested in one queen. This is unthinkable to the futuristic human society of the book, as they claim to place high value on individuality. However, after the buggers attack Earth, the humans strip children of their individuality and agency in order to win the war. In the end, young protagonist Ender Wiggin learns that the attacks on humanity were not out of malice. The buggers simply did not understand what humans were like. Earth generals ordered the annihilation of a species that they feared mindlessly. They did not even take the time to truly understand the buggers and their ways.
The 1960s anthology show The Outer Limits produced a second season episode based off the story “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov. It features a young and snarky reporter played by a pre-Star Trek Leonard Nimoy. The plot revolves around a robot named Adam, who is put on trial and accused of murdering his creator. Due to the prejudices of the court against his inhuman form, Adam is sentenced to be disassembled for a crime he did not commit. In the end, as he is taken off to his demise, he throws himself in front of a truck to save a child’s life. The question lingers: who was the monster? The hulking metal creation, or the prejudiced creator race?
While at this time of year, we may enjoy shock-filled thrill-fests featuring the evil, twisted inhuman creatures that lurk in our nightmares, science fiction urges us to think deeper about the things we fear. Should we be afraid or disgusted by things and people who do not look or act like us? Or is the real menace our own senseless bigotry?