American Dreams

(This is a piece I wrote back in 2013 for a now-defunct blog. I present it with some minor edits.)

retrospaceI’ve written in other places about the influence of science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature upon our culture. Writers with an interest in social commentary find science fiction valuable in this regard, for they can explore cultural issues by creating a foreign or alien society, a future or alternate world, and talking there about things that would be difficult to describe here. We can play out fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, in that sort of fictional setting with a freedom we don’t have with more respectable genres.

This isn’t a new technique. Jonathan Swift used it to advantage in Gulliver’s Travels,back in 1726, a work long recognized as satire and social commentary. The Berber writer Apuleius (who wrote in Latin) did much the same nearly two thousand years ago, with his novel Metamorphosis, or The Golden Ass. In more modern times, there is George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and stories from Aldous Huxley such as Brave New World. These and innumerable others were intended primarily as works that told interesting tales as a palatable way of presenting social commentary

More interesting still, perhaps, are works that were intended first as popular tales, stories that simply take advantage of existing social fads for commercial purposes. These don’t comment on the culture so much as reflect it. Recent trends in current science fiction may reveal something about the nearly-subconscious dreams and fears of present-day America. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

bodysnatchers 1956 reviewSome works of popular fiction stand in a sort of gray zone. They may be immensely popular stories that reflect then-current social concerns, but it isn’t clear whether the creators intended them as anything more than money makers. The prime example of this is the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is now almost universally recognized as an allegory of paranoia about Communist plots, expressing fears that your neighbor could harbor a frightening secret intended to subvert our very way of life. Other sci-fi of that era reflects similar fears: 1951’s The Thing from Another World (remade as The Thing in 1982 and again in 2011), 1958’s The Fly (remade in 1986), and even George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead toward the end of that era. All of these create their fear through the idea of normal people being transformed into monsters, or monstrous realities hiding within people who could be close to you.

invadersThe themes were repeated in the 1967-1968 television series The Invaders, about aliens coming to conquer the Earth, aliens who could disguise themselves as humans, another thinly-veiled cautionary tale about Communist sympathizers among us. In 1984 and 1985, in the middle of the Commie-bating Reagan era, the television series “V” resurrected exactly the idea of The Invaders. “V” even returned in 2009. That many of the classics found new life as successful remakes shows the underlying fear remains part of our society. Communism has faded as a threat, but the theme has remained.

Around the time of this writing (fall of 2013) my wife pointed out a trend to me, the significance of which I hadn’t noticed. We saw an ad for a television series, Defiance, and I commented that the idea of alien invasion seems to be once again gaining popularity in modern culture. Concurrent with that was another series, TNT’s Falling Skies. She suggested there was a reason for the resurgence.

Americans are once again afraid of alien influences. Stoked by the twenty-four-hour “news” cycles which are mostly about political posturing, the fear has again floated to the top of the sewers of our collective mind. The fear was crystallized by Barack Obama’s rise to the office of President. There is a conscious and intentional effort by his political opponents to depict President Obama as alien, un-American, socialist, perhaps not a citizen.

It’s more than that, though. Our culture is rapidly changing, from opinions about gays to the ever-accelerating pace of technological advance. We are not what we were fifty years ago, or even a dozen years ago. The world is changing around us:

For this generation of entering college students, born in 1994, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Richard Nixon and John Wayne Gacy have always been dead.

2016Click this link. It will make you feel very old.

Is it any wonder we again (still?) fear a dark invasion, a hidden conspiracy, forces from outside the comfortable fence of the known world? The Walking Dead embodies the fear of becoming something horrible; Battlestar Galactica, another recent remake, makes the aliens explicit; Terra Nova vividly depicted the monsters just outside the city walls. Supernatural depicts the threat with existential and religions overtones. The explosion of vampire and werewolf fiction carries that same undercurrent.

We Americans have always had a deep-seated fear of the Other. This seems odd since we are, in fact the Other. America, as is often said, is a nation of immigrants. We came here. Think about that. For most of us, we were The Invaders, and we conquered the people we found here to establish our nation. That is, in fact, what makes this fear so natural and comprehensible, so much a part of our national consciousness. We know it is possible for aliens to conquer, we know it happens, we know it can happen again, because we ourselves did it.

vampiresThat may be why modern vampire fiction often depicts the monsters as being compelling and attractive, even while remaining unspeakably dangerous. We can play in that genre, we can explore our fears of what we are becoming, even while we acknowledge our moth-like attraction to the flame that will consume us.

This trend in modern sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, enduring and perhaps increasing, says something very deep about American psychology and about the way we see ourselves and our world. It reveals our secrets, almost as a psychologist might analyze a patient’s dreams. Indeed, these are our culture’s dreams, expressed by the creators of popular fiction. We can observe a lot about ourselves by watching them.

(After re-reading this, I’m struck by its continued applicability. The themes still pervade our current popular fiction, blockbuster movies and television series, and those fears drive the rise of a new Know-Nothing party exemplified by a modern Tail Gunner Joe in the guise of a “reality” TV star playing the part of a would-be fascist dictator. The fears I wrote about in 2013 have only magnified. )





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