Monday, 23 April 2018

Monster, Machine or Humanoid - which is the scariest sci-fi adversary?

Monster, Machine or Humanoid - sci-fi adversaries

I recently ran a workshop looking at sci-fi adversaries for a group of Yorkshire writers. For the purposes of the workshop when I say sci-fi, I am not talking about fantasy, eg, alternative universes or magic even if in the contemporary world. It needs to have an element of space so could be futuristic earth, on spaceships, alien worlds, with aliens but not Harry Potter, not Middle Earth, not Game of Thrones.

First of all, consider how some sci-fi lines have become part of our culture: ‘I will exterminate you’, ‘I’ll be Back’, ‘Resistance is Futile’, ‘Live long and prosper’, ‘May the Force be with you’, ‘ET phone home’, even ‘Take me to your leader’! Suffice to say the sci-fi bad guys are nearly as well known as the heroes so it’s important that they be well drawn characters to make them memorable. But how do you decide as a writer how to choose? Well, I am arguing that they could fall into just three categories – monster, machine and humanoid (I am not including gods in this breakdown as it has to be something mortal – Gods as adversaries is a whole other category).

When we think of the archetypal alien is it the little grey man with big black eyes? In 1893 HG Wellsenvisioned the possibility of humanity transformed into a race of grey-skinned beings; who were perhaps 1 meter tall, with big heads and large, oval-shaped pitch black eyes. He then used this concept for the aliens in First Men on the Moon. Since then it has been taken up by other writers and those claiming to be abducted. Were they all copying Wells, was the little grey man known before Wells, or did people truly meet aliens like these? I argue – look at how diverse we are on earth. Surely any aliens wouldn’t all look the same (in Stargate they use the plot device of these aliens having been cloned over and over again that they now look the same).


That aside, writers have come up with an amazing variety of alien beings as we look at the first category of monsters. For this category, I am talking non speaking beings – Godzilla, Predator, Alien from the first alien film, the Goa’uld snake from Stargate (which could only speak through a host they took over but had no voice otherwise), the insectoid shadows from Babylon 5, the monster from the Thing from outer space, the Triffids, pod people from invasion of the body snatchers (though they did have speech when they transformed), the bugs from Starship Troopers, even the mindless thread from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon books.

Usually physically strong to made up for lack of intelligence or speech. But impossible to reason with. One of the reasons we find them so scary is that they can be equated with those things in our own natural world that we loathe – spiders or bugs, snakes, reptiles, or just a big monster that will envelope us in the night and carry us away from everyone. The dark always scares us so these monsters are often depicted as being black. We know from Monsters inc that they are okay purely because they are so colourful. 

Also a number of them are invisible – like the monster from The Forbidden Planet, the Predator had the ability to be invisible, as did the Starship Trooper bugs, adding an additional element of fear and sometimes they may have more than two arms making it more difficult for us to defeat them. Also note, they are generally ugly – the word monster conjures something revolting. One of the ugliest has to be Scorpius in Farscape but as he is a ‘speaking’ being he crosses over to another category. The ultimate monster is, of course, Frankenstein. Our heroes and heroines are usually good looking so the baddie has to be the opposite because we prize beauty so much.

I am intrigued by the fact that at least three of these – the triffids, the monster from Thing and the Pod people are actually plants which, in itself, doesn’t sound so evil! After all, we love our plants and flowers which are beautiful. It might make it harder for the writer to convince the reader or viewer but I love the irony in making monsters out of plants.

A lot of these monsters rely on a particularly destructive ability – the stingers of the triffids, the acid thrown by the aliens of David Feintuch’s Seafort saga, the organic eating thread – and didn’t Godzilla zap people with their eyes?

So how do we overcome them? They are flawed in that their skin can be pierced with bullets, their brains can be bashed in, they can get tired, tripped up, electrocuted but it takes some doing. Of course, you have to do this before they enter your body and rip through your stomach, aka, the first Alien film. But sometimes we get them on our side and we conquer them - the worms in Dune for example.

I also find it very interesting in the Seafort saga how the aliens throughout all the books, suddenly becomes the ally in the last book by making you realise it was the humans that were hurting them and they were just retaliating. It was only after decades that they eventually discovered how to communicate with us. Because that is the crux of what makes this category so scary – the lack of communication.


Machines next. Think dalek from Dr Who, the borg from Star Trek, replicators from Stargate, the Terminator, Hal in Space Odessy. The Matrix. The Replicants of Blade Runner. The Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. You could argue that Gort, the robot, from the Day the Earth Stood Still was an adversary – certainly to the humans who tried to use their puny weapons on him he was.

This is another adversary we cannot reason with but also not having feelings they have no compassion (although not sure monsters do either but being machine makes it that much harder!) They are physically superior with no animalistic flaws that we could overcome like we did with the monsters (I’m ignoring the fact that Daleks cannot climb stairs – I think they got over that plot flaw by having them fly). Machines can think quicker than us. They have no humanity we can appeal to but at least we can communicate with them even if they don’t listen to us!

Interestingly writers have often used the suggestion of a ‘hive mind’ in conjunction with machines – the Borg, the Replicators and the Daleks, certainly, worked as one hive or one enemy, giving a greater fear for us to overcome.

And I like the use of the term Tripods for the spaceships in the War of the Worlds – it gives them an insect quality – these might be spaceships operated by unseen aliens but it combines the monster with the machine in our imagination.

And yet humans overcame most of them – how? Well for a start, most machines seem to just want to exterminate you. Limited in their thinking! By being cunning we can get around them, by thinking outside the box, by thinking as illogically as only humans can do! In many cases it was get as far from them as you could, like with the Cylons, sometimes it was come up with a weapon to destroy them, eg, with the replicators, or computer virus in Independence Day (although they weren’t machines they needed their machines to make war on us) or make laws so they are banned from human worlds, aka replicants. Of course, in some films the machine won and they, to me at any rate, are the scariest. I am thinking of Colossus in the Forbin Project which took over the world and the hero had to give in at the end (I love a story that doesn’t end up with the good guy always winning).

But generally humans win the day and let’s remember not all robots are bad – Data in Star Trek, Robbie the Robot in Lost in Space. And Assimov wrote the 3 robot laws so that robots did not become a danger to man!


Finally, humanoids, eg, they physically look like humans unlike the monsters so are less scary to look at and more of a stature with us making it easier for us to physically fight them, have feelings unlike machines, we can communicate and thereby reason with them. Klingons. Darth Vader may be part machine but he started off as a human although he had a tendency to violence even then. Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, Khan from Star Trek. The evil children of Village of the Damned (The Midwich Cuckoos if you go by the name of the book). Lex Luthor from Superman. The Master from Dr Who (who eventually became a Dalek if I recall). Magneto (although I preferred him when he was being bad – we don’t always like our bad guys turning good). So, they can be from Earth but many sci fi adversaries are actually other humanoids even if they are alien, eg, two arms, two legs, a human like face, they speak English (actually it’s amazing how many alien species do speak English!!). I would argue that the apes from Planet of the Apes come under this category – they can speak English (although in the modern films the Apes are the protagonists).

Many of these villains can be equated with the ‘Hitler’ complex, the meglomaniac – Emperor Palpatine, Big Brother of the novel 1984, President Snow of the Hunger Games, Ming the Merciless (see pic), Khan, General Zod, Captain Nemo and so on. This is a different kind of dread for the reader to the ugly monster or cold machine.

Hated maybe, but possibly not feared. As a reader why are we less frightened of human adversaries? Is it because they are us we know how they think, we can reason with them, we can appeal to their good side, and even if they are a psychopath we know their physical and mental flaws? Is it because they lack the ugliness of the monster – we perceive those made in our image to be the good guys? Is it because we are not so physically overawed by them?

On the other hand, they know what makes us tick so it is easier for them to overcome and kill humans – Scorpius continually got into John’s mind to try to get the information he wanted. The use of the ‘hive’ mind was put to great use by the children in the Village of the Damned who used their mental abilities to destroy humans wanting to hurt them – not understandably except when they creep you out.

You do sometimes have the humanoid villain who is bit like a scary monster but speaks English, I’ve already mentioned Klingons or Scorpious – a nice crossing of categories. But the advantage of having a humanoid villain that looks like a human is they can appear the good guys when in fact they are the opposite. The ‘visitors’ from the 1980s series V. Darth Vader until he turned to the bad side, etc. However, you will often find the sci fi writer takes the humanoid villain down the route of mentally scaring the reader. Consider all the sci-fi stories where humans with strong mental abilities are feared by others, eg, x-men, humanz, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.

The greatest megalomaniac with superior mental powers was Marc from Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles. Charismatic, strong, good looking – everything a hero should be! Except he is the anti hero. And sometimes a hero might be on the edge of being bad – the gorgeous Avon from Blake’s 7.

Some of the films and series of ‘superheroes’ have, of course ‘anti superheroes’ who have a variety of powers. I’ve already mentioned Magneto. We also have Mystique from Xmen – I was never sure if she was good or bad – I think she could swing both ways. Interestingly, one of few women to be the sci-fi villain. Consider all those I’ve mentioned so far – apart from the Borg Queen (who I found more sexy than scary) there are only tiny pockets of occasional girls.

How do we overcome humanoids whether megalomaniac, pretending they are good or those with superpowers? In most of these cases it seems to be with help from other humans. That fits with our democratic culture – work together to overthrow the despot, those with prejudices, those hurting others. Find the chink in their armour (in Magneto’s case take all metal from his vicinity). Mentally reprogramme (Alex in a clockwork orange). I recall a Dr Who programme where the Doctor or their assistant recited nursery rhymes. Can’t for the life of me remember who or what it was that they stopped in their tracks with that method but what a great idea! Only when necessary, use the bomb. The professor in Midwich only resorted to the bomb as a final straw which cost him his life. A parable for today’s life, surely! Except this is fiction and not real life!

So in conclusion, I argue that the scariest of these three groups are the humanoids.

After all, Klatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still came to Earth to warn us they will destroy us before letting us - mankind - go into space for they saw how destructive we are. And in Forbidden Planet the invisible scary monster that tore people limb from limb, although made by machine, was created from man’s own mind. Be afraid – be very very afraid….

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