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Monsters, the Monstrous, and Reclaiming the Other

Dragon by devin plattsMonsters—or, in the very least, the monstrous—show up fairly frequently in most speculative fiction. Whether under the guise of dragons and creatures from the deep (ocean or space) or by way of vampires and the fickle, often cruel fae, monsters and the absolute other of evil is a mainstay of much of our fiction. Casting the net wider to encompass media that straddles the line between speculative and horror, we’re treated to a deeper wealth of material to examine. When we broaden the concept of monsters to touch upon the monstrous, the net is cast all the wider; instead of devils with horns and vampires with a hankering for blood, we invite the evil within us to join the ranks of speculative fiction’s villains and enemies. Humans can be monstrous (substitute human for any relevant race, whether elf or dwarf or something else entirely), and approaching the theme of monsters would be lacking without addressing how we, ourselves, can easily become just as terrible as the monsters of speculative fiction’s very base roots. 

But here’s the thing: monsters aren’t that frightening anymore. Sure, dragons can be terrifying (wings and teeth and fiery gnashing!) and the creatures of myth that stalk the shadows, threatening everything from a slow dismembering to petrification, are definitely something to be avoided as we go about our fictional worlds, following our heroes dutifully as they go, but on the whole, that which we perceive as “monstrous” has shifted.

While the protomolecule in James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse is horrifying, what’s more unnerving is the cold villainy of Jules-Pierre Mao and the scientists risking the lives of children in order to further their goals. The monsters they subsequently create are undeniably terrible, and yet more monstrous still is the willingness of those who made them to continue with the development programmes, even knowing the cost and resulting chaos and harm.

The Expanse - protomolecule

Game of Thrones might show massive dragons that breathe terrible flames, hot enough to melt the Iron Throne, but what is truly terrifying are the lengths the human characters will go to in order to claim and crown and seize the power to rule. Even that which is presented as a monster in The Shape of Water is merely a sophisticated bait-and-switch, where the creature is less the monster, than the very human man who presides over the laboratory.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein (cover)Dating back to Mary Shelley, even our bored-at-a-party, invented-science-fiction-on-a-dare teenage girl knew that man would ever be more horrifying than anything dubbed as “monstrous” by a mortal hand. This sentiment is expressed with perfect elegance by Kiersten White in her Frankenstein retelling, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, where Elizabeth Frankenstein, playmate of the vicious and sociopathic Victor, is forced to adapt and survive in the presence of a true monster.

And, although it might be giving a little too much credit to Stephanie Meyer, perhaps her shimmer-skinned vampires, beautiful predators that they are, suggest that, more monstrous than a creature with preternatural gifts with a taste for blood, is the horror masked instead by beauty: in a world where appearances matter and we shallowly follow the bright and the beautiful (influencers, the charismatic, the uncannily charming), as they share with us snapshots of their “perfect”, alluring lives. It’s easier to see how the cultivated, manufactured charm of these people is more unnerving than a forever-teenage boy come to drink a little of your blood.

Octopus by Lars Grant-WestWe’re no longer afraid of werewolves or vampires or the many things that go bump! in the night. More frightening are the anxieties of the modern age: economy, privacy, technology, bodily autonomy, and so on. In many ways, what was once monstrous has now been almost “reclaimed” by those who don’t fit or who wish to stand apart. Once, werewolves and vampires and faeries, even fishmen from Innsmouth and eldritch horrors for beyond, were (thinly veiled, in some cases) metaphors for the “other”: For that which is different to us. Much of this speculative horror was deeply concerned with supremacy of race and nation, where each and every monster was a metaphor for people of colour and immigrants. Generally speaking, these classic speculative horror specimens were obsessed with demonstrating how deeply monstrous the Other was.

But that’s not true anymore: now, the roles of the monsters have been reclaimed, reimagined. In a world where everything from embracing technology (and the steady creep towards the possibility of eventual transhumanism) to being non-white or queer marks people as the other, it isn’t difficult to understand why the stories of the monsters have been re-examined and even reclaimed. Even being born within certain dates is enough to be labelled as different and, as with any marginalised group, have the faults of the world heaped at our feet as if we are culpable, responsible for broken societies and scuppered systems by virtue of taking selfies and not eating at big chain restaurants. In turn, we have stepped into the shoes of these classic monsters, now eager to mistrust claims that they are in fact as monstrous as we’ve been told. In media and in the worlds we write and read, we are the vampires and witches, the ram-horned terrors with cloven hooves. We’ve become the sirens and the fae, the different and the other

Where previous generations were confined to smaller worlds where that which was different posed an imaginary threat to their sense of secure supremacy, those of us grown and growing up in a world made small—made local—by the Internet and advancing technology have a vastly different view of things. Add to this the fact that we wear our badges of difference proudly—we’re queerer, louder, more liberal, more openly compassionate, more neurodivergent, less conforming—and it’s not difficult to see how the idea of the other as monstrous has begun to crumble. We’re too aware of what really frightens us and is, therefore, frightening.

Awake by Juan Novelletto

Even when it comes to sci-fi, we’re no longer envisioning aliens come to attack earth or even rogue AIs and robots rising up and taking control. Instead, our anxieties are rooted in issues of how mankind as a whole will survive in a social sense in space, and whether or not the same injustices that are so deep rooted here on Earth will follow us to the stars. AI and androids have become narrative vessels for the exploration of how society treats the perceived other. People are only afraid of rampaging androids and evil AI because they understand our terrible track record with that which is different and that which we fear might usurp us. Assuming such conflict and desire for control is a necessity and vital thing. (It isn’t.) Ultimately, we know how badly we would treat them, and we know deep down how monstrous humanity can be, and thus understand perfectly the evil we have the potential to code into these creations ourselves. 

Microchip mind control by Lun-acyLooking more deeply, fear of robots or androids as things that will make workforce obsolete is less the anxiety over a unemployment, and more a lack of understanding that, in order to be a functioning and healthy society, we as a species are required to work at all. Though the idea is long tainted by corrupt capitalism and the totalitarianism of communism, as a species we would thrive with no requirements on productivity and contribution, with all that time and energy given over to learning and art and discovery instead. Instead, the ultra-rich allow the same seeds of anxiety to keep in sowing and thus the concept of a skilled, assembled force to do away with the need for physical labour becomes frightening—and that’s the real reason we’re afraid of androids, AI, and robots. 

Even more futuristically speaking, we still entertain the age-old theme of Terra versus Mars, but instead these themes are used to explore societal claims of independence and cooperation, and to show just how a different hunk of rock under foot is enough to change how we see one another, transformed from like and kin to other by virtue of location. 

And we are, at the root of things, only afraid that robots and AI will overthrow us for one simple reason: we are frightened that they will treat us the way we have treated them, and that thought is truly terrifying. Which is why the obsession as to whether these constructs are truly alive, are capable of independent thought, or are anything close to human at all: if they are, then we become the monsters, understanding perfectly the potential for damage done by how we abuse them. 

Asanbosam by Francesco FrancavillaThat’s not to say that monsters don’t have a place still in speculative fiction and that all monsters are now confined to the shape of a human and our capacity for cruelty or horror. With a slow diversifying of speculative fiction with regards to ethnicity and race and the exploration of non-Eurocentric settings, we’re seeing a rise of the classic monsters and beasts of other mythologies. And, that’s not to say that the metaphorical and literal cannot merge, and to even greater effect, creating a layered and faceted study.

Take Jen Williams. In the Cooper Cat trilogy, we’re invited to spend time with a variety of gods and monsters, from giant spider-things to deities that want nothing more than to ruin your day. Sure, the gods are terrible and yes, the demon and its cult (and the things done in the demon’s name) are horrible. But easily the most frightening aspect of the trilogy is Joah Demonsworn. He is gifted and bright and might so easily demonstrate precisely the kind of danger our very own Frith could have become, had he been a different man in a different place and time.

Power can be horrifying in the wrong hands, even if those hands begin with the best of intentions and without a single drop of blood. Equally, in Williams’ The Winnowing Flame trilogy, the Jure’lia and the parasite spirits might be frightening, but one of the most terrible aspects of the trilogy is not the worm people and their goal of transforming Sarn into a habitable world for themselves, but the depths of Hestillion’s pride and desperation. At points, Hestillion and her deep betrayal is more monstrous than the Jure’lia and their skyward Behemoth ships.

The Ninth Rain (cover)The same can easily be said of the Winnowry, a place where women with the gift of winnowfire are held as prisoners and slaves, branded and abused on the word of a long-dead man who claimed to be wise and knowing. The captivity of these women—both the conditions they’re housed in and the forced labour they endure—might not be the encompassing varnish or the devouring wrath of the Jure’lia, but the treatment of these women and girls by both their keepers and their abandonment by their families, friends, and the world at large, is truly horrifying. It is both an examination of misogyny and the concept of the other by way of dangerous, misunderstood magic.

As with most instances where magic of any kind is feared, half the threat would be diminished by simple education. Teach the fell-witches how to use their power instead of exploiting and abusing them as punishment for it.

This theme—education and control versus oppression—is central to the Dragon Age games, where we’re shown increasingly monstrous methods being employed to keep mages controlled and afraid, when instead, the sheer hate and blind belief that mages are inherent abominations is far more shocking. With “solutions” such as murdering every mage in the Circle considered a reasonable response to the actions of a single person (a person driven to desperate measures by the very oppression that keeps them small and afraid), again, it’s not the capacity to summon fire and conjure lightning that is frightening.

Mad Sciencist by thegryph (detail).jpg

With horror—especially speculative horror—having long even used as a way to explore cultural and societal anxieties and to tap into and play upon our darkest and most visceral fears, just how the subgenre’s themes and examinations might change over time is at once fascinating and, rightfully so, frightening. What is more terrifying than holding up a mirror to the monstrous, only to realise we’re looking at our own reflections—and that we always have been?

Title image by Nisachar.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Richard Marpole says:

    Interesting take on modern society. I enjoyed this one a lot!

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