I’m going to pick on two types of fictional invaders: zombies and aliens. Zombies seem a lot more popular these days than aliens do, and I have a couple of guesses as to why.
Zombies are people who become unpeople. They go from rational, emotional creatures who do not consume your resources to unthinking, unfeeling monsters who will take away everything you have–your life, your loved ones; they’ll even make money obsolete. Worse, they have the power to make anyone, no matter what they thought or how they felt before, agree with them.
My thought is that a culture where the different points of view are unable to communicate to each other will find zombies and zombielike creatures a suitable myth. Anyone who disagrees with you is irrational and insane and is out for your brains, obviously–why not make up stories about that?
When people ask you what you’d do if zombies attack–here’s the problem: zombies cannot, will not ever attack. There are no unpeople. In situations where you would expect people to act unhumanely, such as in a tragedy or a plague outbreak, you instead see an intense range of human emotions: fear, generosity, looking out for #1, denial. You do not see people, no matter how numb or twisted they are, murdering people and eating them. In times of crisis, we act more like humans, not less. Even Dahmer didn’t eat people indiscriminately.
The general message of zombie tales is: it’s okay to act unhumanely towards unpeople. The collary is: Unpeople includes anyone who you fundamentally disagree with or dislike.
Too much traffic? Fantasize about them being zombies and you getting to kill all of them with a tire iron…it’s okay! They’re unpeople! Someone stressing you out at work in your cube farm? Dream of them getting their throat ripped out…it’s okay! Everyone (except you) who works at a cube farm is a zombie anyway! Disagree with another political party? Dream of them causing a zombie apocalypse by their corrupt ways, then getting what they deserve…it’s okay! They’re unpeople! Too bad if your loved ones are caught up in all that…they should have been more careful not to get around those unpeople. Blam!
Personally, I think that our brains can only contain so many individual people inside our “these are people” mental box. The rest of the humans on the planet are…”the rest of the humans on the planet.” Or, in other words, you can only care about so many things (or people), and we’re becoming increasingly aware that people that we don’t know–and thus don’t care about, not really–have a huge affect on our lives. Our lives are being changed by people we don’t know. What right do they have to do that? It’s monstrous! Maybe, just maybe, if there were a terrible apocalypse, there would be fewer people, and our lives would go back to be affected only by people we know. They might be crappy people, but at least we could know all of the ones that affected us, or feel like we do.
So what did we do before zombies? Because the infectious kind haven’t been around all that long–the 20th century is it.
Aliens. People would speculate on the existence of extraterrestrial life over the centuries, but it really started to pick up in the 1500s, during the Renaissance. We looked out into the stars and said, “What’s out there? Surely more than dots of light.”
The best aliens start out as unpeople but must be dealt with as though they were people. They don’t have the same motivations that we do. We cannot truly understand them. If they try to explain what they want, we cannot accept that they mean what they say, because it’s unthinkable. I’m not a huge Arthur C. Clarke fan, but I think his aliens are among the purest examples of this: the incomprehensible invasion.
When aliens invade, we must deal with it as a society, or even as a species. Alien invasions often force people to work together in a way they wouldn’t, with zombies: often the worst monsters in a zombie tale are the other survivors. In alien invasion stories, you’ll have the one person who’s persuaded by financial gain to betray other humans, but they usually bite it in the early-last half of the story. There’s no point in selling out to the zombies.
Sometimes we reach an accommodation with the aliens. Sometimes, some of us learn how to see the aliens (unpeople) as a kind of people, and mediate peace. Sometimes the aliens show an unexpected (human? mortal?) weakness (e.g., the aliens in The War of the Worlds). Sometimes we steal whatever makes them superior (because aliens are, in some way, superior–that’s part of the deal), which often has negative consequences (the Aliens movies). Sometimes we take a place in a galactic organization, in which some aliens are our allies, and some are our enemies–thus, to a certain extent, people.
Don’t get me wrong. I like zombies. Given, say, a short story collection about zombies and a short story collection about aliens, I’ll take the zombie one, because I’m pretty sure I’ll find something that I like in the zombie collection. One of the things that zombie stories do is mock culture, and I love iconoclasty. But there’s a fine line between breaking someone’s idols and gunning them down in cold blood, and I think it’s dangerous to get in a habit of making the “them” in “us vs. them” be unpeople.
So here’s what I want for aliens, for counterbalance: Stop treating alien invaders like zombies in outer-space clothing (Independence Day)–or even like humans in outer-space clothing. Aliens should start out as unpeople, with whom humanity must cope. Less idealism and more complexity: more intrigue. Learning how to cope with what we don’t understand should never be a quick and painless process. Alien technology should be superior–well, I suppose you could make it inferior, but then the humans would be the aliens, really–and we should understand it no better than we do the aliens themselves.
Clear “victories,” where we wipe out a race or a planet, should be paid for, because, you know, in a galactic civilization, everybody has friends.
And stop telling yourself that science fiction should be “realistic” when it comes to aliens, because “realistically,” there are none. Aliens are a myth, that is, a story that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of things. Just because there might really be aliens doesn’t mean that they aren’t a myth–so a little fun is allowed.
There’s a reason that Star Trek and Star Wars (note–playing a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic this weekend) have endured for so long, and why Men in Black is having another movie come out, and Independence Day, despite all the money they made, isn’t. Moral complexity when dealing with other isn’t just an ideal–it’s good storytelling. “We have met the other, and we killed it” is satisfying…once in a while. It scratches an itch. But so does “Humanity outgrew itself and reached the stars”–and, played right, it’s better for repeat business.