Saturday, September 3, 2011

Zombies and aliens

Last week-end I watched, with some pleasure, the final episode of Falling Skies. Unlike so many in the Peak Oil movement, I don’t think modern fiction is decadent. It is, if anything, far better than what was produced in the seventies, and not only because of flashier special effects. That wasn’t what I mused about, however, as I watched, with a cup of pu-erh in may hand and a furry monster on my lap, the Second Massachusetts fighting a seemingly hopeless war against an enemy it barely understands – but about a red-jacketed book standing amidst a lot of others just behind me.

It was published in 1976 by a then-young French scholar, Emmanuel Todd, and was titled “La chute finale: Essais sur la décomposition de la sphère Soviétique” (The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decompositionof the Soviet Sphere). At this time the Soviet Union still looked strong, yet Todd predicted its impending collapse based upon such indicators as life expectancy and infant mortality. He wasn’t the only one to do so, and to tell the truth he wasn’t even the first one. Todd’s originality was his use of proxy indicators such as the depiction of aliens in popular culture.

During the first decades of communist rule, Todd argued, aliens were seen as friendly or, what amounted to the same thing, in need of some revolutionary help from Earth. “Andromeda”, published in 1957 by Ivan Yefremov, is the perfect example of this. It pictures an entirely communist Earth, member of a kind of interstellar radio network, the Great Circle. There is no faster-than-light travel, so the civilizations of the Great Circle almost never meet in person, but from time to time a utopian Earth sends spaceships in a kind of Grand Tour with the occasional fight against non-sentient monsters and the occasional ecological disaster on some distant planet.

As the Soviet Union sank deeper into depression, however, the tone changed. The aliens became hostile and space filled up with enemies. In 1968, the very same author of Andromeda wrote a sequel, “The Bull's Hour”, which depicted a totalitarian hell where the bulk of the population was condemned to live very short lives under the ruthless control of the ruling class of government bureaucrats and the police forces, which in turn were under the direct command of the Council of Four and its Chairman.

The Bull's Hour” was quickly banned but it was hardly the only example of this change of tone. “Hard to Be a God”, for instance, written in 1964 by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, pictures an agent of faraway Earth, impotent as the medieval kingdom he supervises falls into the hands of an insane tyrant. The main point of the novel was that even with godlike power, it is impossible to really change the world.

According to Todd, this change in tone, while it certainly made for better literature, reflected a change in the mindset of Soviet society. During its early years, the Soviet Union considered itself a missionary state which was to spread socialism through the whole world. This was no longer the case in the sixties. Even though it was still expanding, the Soviet Empire increasingly viewed itself as a besieged fortress. The Soviet ruling class, as it was becoming more and more aware that it was indeed a ruling class, felt increasingly threatened by the growing prosperity of the West. Its objective changed from imposing Communism on the world to preserving its own position at home. As the stagnation of Soviet society became more and more obvious, this fear of the outside turned into outright paranoia, to the point that in 1983 the Soviet Politburo nearly unleashed Armageddon after having mistaken a NATO exercise for war preparation.

The hostile aliens always threatening Earth were only a reflection of the very real forces which ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and to the end of Communism as a credible alternative.

The West has had its share of alien invaders, from Wells’ Martians to the body-snatchers, and they were numerous during the first decades of the Cold War, when its outcome was still very much in doubt and Communism still a credible ideological threat. After the end of WWII, however, those aliens sought to take over the Earth through subversion rather than brute military force – as any alien able to cross the interstellar space would have done – and most of the time, humanity emerged as the victor.

Things changed during the seventies and the early eighties, with movies such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Cocoon, or the rise of such UFO religions as Raëlism. The aliens became benevolent Space Brothers who would help us leave behind our materialistic past and get to the next stage of Evolution – whatever that might mean. The French incarnation was a delicious animated series called “Il était une Fois l’Espace” in which faces destruction at the hands of a robotic civilization of its own making, only to be saved by more spiritually evolved aliens.

This change was not the result of a growing optimism in the collective Western psyche, however. In fact it was quite the contrary. If the Space Brothers were going to save us, it was because there was something for us to be saved from. The sister series of “Il était une Fois l’Espace” – “Il était une Fois l’Homme” – ended with humanity blowing itself up, leaving only a handful of survivors in space.

By then, concerns about resource depletion, rampant pollution, biodiversity loss, and the like had become quite mainstream, at least in France – more than today in a way. “Il était une Fois l’Homme” was, after all, aimed at kids and aired on national television at lunch time. Appealing to some savior from outer space was apparently the response our collective psyche brought to this growing awareness – a response which obviously had deep connections with our Judeo-Christian past.

It was also a kind of escapism – after all, if the Space Brothers are going to solve all our problems and bring us ready-made enlightenment tomorrow, then there is no point in changing our life now. From this point of view, the benevolent aliens were a part of the multi-pronged cultural complex which smothered the first efforts toward the building of a sustainable society during the Seventies and the Eighties – a symptom of our unwillingness to face the reality we have built for ourselves.

The opportunity to stabilize the course of industrial society is now long gone, and it seems that the aliens have undergone aturn about-face, becoming hostile again, but with a twist.

The invaders from outer space were once nearly always defeated by human ingenuity or courage. This is no longer the case. Today’s aliens are nearly unstoppable and while humanity can score local victories against them, it is always at a great cost. This becomes obvious if we compare the two incarnations of Battlestar Galactica. In the original series, the Cylons have defeated the Colonies because of the betrayal of one of their rulers – which means they would never have succeeded on their own – and they don’t seem to pose a serious threat to colonial fighters, on the run as those may be.

The new series is far darker. The Colonies have been destroyed after a successful infiltration operation and the few survivors are really on the run. They have lost nearly everything and are only one mistake away from losing the rest. They are outgunned and outnumbered and we are reminded in every episode how few they are. There is a general sense of loss and impending doom – people die, and not anonymous red-shirts but people you love.

We find the same theme – with some variations – in most recent representations of alien encounters, whether it be Falling Skies, the new incarnation of V, Monsters, Skyline… We also find it in modern zombie movies.

Zombies are no novelty – they became popular in 1968 with The Night of the Living Dead – but until recently they appealed only to a restricted audience. The popularity of the zombie apocalypse theme, both in print and onscreen is a relatively recent thing. Although Romero’s movies may have met with some success, it was still a genre or cult success; while 28 Days Later, Resident Evil or Dead Walking have been worldwide commercial successes – not a guarantee of quality, mind you, but a sure sign they are in sync with at least a part of our collective psyche.

The common theme to most modern alien or zombie stories is very simple: there is something out there, it is stronger than we are, and it wants to destroy us. This is by no way a recent theme – all of Lovecraft’s stories, for instance, are based upon it – however it was hardly dominant. Sure, there were a lot of stories about defeated heroes – the Alamo, for instance – but their defeats were presented as a sacrifice, paving the way for a later victory.

The interest of popular culture in real defeat, invincible foes, and doomed victories may reflect a more realistic view of the world – we know, after all, that most defeats are final. I feel there is more to it, however.

Industrial civilization is in an impossible situation. It has probably reached the point where increases in complexity yield negative returns, which means that continued growth will no longer translate into well-being. Moreover, the level of complexity we have attained is dependent upon a continuous inflow of cheap energy, an inflow which is quite likely to dry up in the near future and has probably already begun to do so. That means that we are likely to experience a rather dramatic, if progressive, decline in social complexity during the coming decades.

Concretely that means that there is no way we can make our lot better in any significant way. We can share the burden more equitably; we can mitigate the effects of the crisis and try to salvage enough of our culture for our descendants to be able to build something worthwhile upon it. We cannot, however, make the whole episode pleasant, even for those few who will come out of it on top. Politicians and the media will vehemently deny this, and will go to great lengths to rationalize their denial; yet in Europe, at least, most people feel that things have somehow taken a wrong turn, that the future will be worse than the present.

Many won’t put this into words because the mainstream discourse doesn’t give them the tools they need to do so, and because the prevailing political culture goes against it. All that does not keep this feeling from growing and spreading, however, but just forces it to express itself through stories and narratives – arguably an age-old solution and one quite apt to stir up emotional responses, but nevertheless one unlikely to have much impact in the cold world of politics where policies are chosen and implemented, at least in the short term. More important, perhaps, its not being expressed in rational ways, at least outside our small circle of radicals, fuels frustration and ultimately an anger which can have very damaging consequences.

We are about as likely to be conquered by Darth Vader as we are to be helped out by the Elohim. There are probably a lot of intelligent species out there, but they are so far away that for all practical purposes we are alone in the universe. The ones who populate our stories are only the shadows of our fears, a not-so-subtle way to silence them and remove them from our daily experience. The problem is that those fears are well founded and that the slow crisis which hides behind them won’t go away when we turn off the television.

Maybe we should face them instead, as the Soviets should have faced them.


  1. Very interesting post !

    I feel right the same but more in the big picture of the literature of imagination.
    From about ten years, there's a shift: From science fiction (aka future of science,space ship, ET's,etc...) to fantasy ( magic, princess,devils, etc....) in most films, books(bit-lit!!!), values, etc...
    Like if we know (deep inside)that it's no longer time to dream about scientific problems and stories.

    Good to see "il était une fois l'espace" again :-). I love the personnality of the little robot (metro) !
    but Albator (Harlock), for example, was far more darker ! I always remember Albator (the first one of course, the only true) has a warning for the hard time to come....Sadly, the solution of Albator is no available ( the space is no longer a realistic option)

  2. For me it has always been a mystery how the scariness of some things is constellated. Hitchcock's Birds just doesn't do the trick for me as I have no way of conceiving birds as scary. Or the multitude of US movies that present some animal as "being after" humans. No doubt apes and anacondas have much reason for revenge, and whatever the humans are getting is richly deserved, but for me the setup somehow fails to evoke the terror that obviously is there for some.

    The Jungian perspective on scariness, of course, is that it is a projection of the unknown in us. Whether it is the space or deep seas - it is always the inside - as you also seem to say. And I quite agree, the inside is in quite bit of turmoil nowadays, judging from the images in movies. Nasty stuff is stirring, much nastier than any pissed-off anaconda.

    Have you looked at the developments in the Archdruid report? There's an attempt to direct attention to the real task instead of the monsters from outer/inner space.