A Mirror for Our Fear

This essay was an assignment for my “Science Fiction and American Culture” class.

monster in the mirror

Science and technology are mirrors in which humankind can see who they are, what they want to be and what they are afraid of. In novels, movies and on television, popular culture explores these possibilities through works of fiction and horror. Sherry Turkle, in her book The Second Self, said, “We search for a link between who we are and what we have made, between who we are and what we might create, between who we are and what, through our intimacy with our own creations, we might become.” Science fiction films and novels explore the possibilities and implications that our science and technology may have for us.

In the 1800’s, Mary Shelly told the tale of a scientist who created life from death and then in fear and revulsion of his creation fled. The monster he created, a child of Dr. Frankenstein’s intellect, used all manners of persuasion to gain parental attention. Frankenstein is a story about what humankind is as seen through the eyes of a human creation.

Other works have explored this same idea. With the passing of time and the increase in our technology’s capabilities, the “Frankenstein’s monsters” of today have become more machine than human. In the movie Demon Seed, a computer takes control over a woman’s life in order to reproduce. In The Lawnmower Man, a machine distorts a man’s mind until he becomes one with the machine. In the Terminator movies, a computer takes over the world and attempts to eradicate humankind altogether.

Many works of science fiction explore how, in our quest, to be free of the mundane things in life, we might bring our own downfall. In 1964, a Twilight Zone episode told the tale of a factory that transferred control over to a computer (“The Brain Center at Whipple’s”). It illustrated how science and technology can dehumanize life. In the movie War Games, directed by John Badham, a similar scenario is played out. Professor Faulken creates a computer that can learn from its mistakes. The computer is childlike. In a way, this echoes Frankenstein. When Lightman, the main character, contacts it by using Dr. Faulken’s code, it responds with what seems like happiness at talking with its father. When asked, “Is this a game or is this real?” it answers, “What is the difference?” It hasn’t learned the difference. The climax of the movie centers on the computer’s struggle to learn. If it does not learn the futility of global thermonuclear war, humankind will die at its “hands.”

In less technological times, the fear of the future was manifested in literature as the coming of the antichrist, the monster with seven heads or other terrible creatures. Now we have the computer and the implications for its use. Today our monsters are robots from the future, our own willingness to relinquish control to a machine, and the dangers of the environments that our technology can take us to. Popular culture manifests our hopes and fears of the future in literature, film, and television. Visions of the future can be hopeful (Star Trek), wary (War Games) or Armageddon (The Terminator), although it has been my experience that the negative visions outnumber the positive ones.

Fear is a common reaction to something new. Science and technology are bringing in new things at such a pace that it can be overwhelming. I think this is the reason that there are more visions of what we fear in science and technology than there are of what we can be and what we can accomplish.