Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Science Fiction and Nightmares

Do we run because we are afraid, or are we afraid because we run?

This is an old psychology conundrum. The theory is simple: in primeval times when man (or woman) was confronted by a predator, the hormonal system released adrenaline, enabling either a fear response (run) or an aggressive reaction, hence the term 'fight or flight'. We still have that same hormonal system. In nightmares, how often are we being chased by something? Perhaps we can see it, perhaps we can't. We are re-living our ancestors' reality.

So, do we have nightmares because something happened in our daily lives, or because we are scaredy-cats, or is it because an adrenaline spike happens during our sleep, and our brain wraps a nightmare around it, because we can't run or fight when sleeping?

Good question.

The best example of this 'living nightmare' in science fiction is the set of Alien films, where at various points people  are being systematically hunted, run down, and killed by an indefatigable alien. This scenario may be clichéd but it never gets old, because this fear is deep in our psyche. Maybe in a million years - assuming we last that long - it will be gone, washed out from our hormonal systems because it's no longer useful. But not in our lifetimes.

So this is really horror scifi, or if you want to be kind, or if it's done really well (e.g. Prometheus), you can upgrade it to dark scifi thriller. But is it really the province of science fiction? A whole cluster of science fiction focuses on alien invasion, and often in films we have this same trope of aliens running down people and killing them. [Actually, I'm guilty of borrowing from this trope to an extent, but the aliens aren't killing people for the usual reasons...]

The more interesting use of the nightmare as a device in science fiction, is either as a premonition or some kind of alien communication, preferably both, where an alien intelligence is trying to warn a human about something, where that 'something' is rather nasty or even cataclysmic. This works at both the intellectual level (because there is a mechanism triggering and informing the nightmare), and an emotional level (because the foreseen outcome is scary). The unwritten contract between the reader and the author is then (a) that the author will explain the mechanism for the communicated nightmare, which makes it plausible, and also makes the implicit 'terror' more real, and (b) that despite the characters' best efforts, the nightmare scenario will to an extent happen, though maybe with a more successful outcome.

In the Eden Paradox, I wanted a nightmare scene near the beginning of the book. I was warned not to start a book with a nightmare as it has been done to death, and can betray trust between the reader and the author ('never mind, it was only a dream'). But it is not exactly a nightmare, as the reader finds out. So, to make it clear that this is not some cheap fiction device, I had two other characters monitoring her nightmare while she is having it, and induce what is known as 'lucid dreaming'. This can also be a useful technique for an author, because for the reader, even though it is a dream, the fact that the person knows it is a dream makes it somehow more real...

Here is Kat's nightmare, which turns out to be both alien communication, and also, for her personally, a terrifying premonition...

Kat heard the footfalls pounding behind her, getting louder, closing. She sprinted towards the Lander, cropped black hair glistening with sweat, muscular arms punching through the gritty breeze. Her slate-grey eyes remained locked onto the desert terrain five metres ahead, like she’d learned in the Falklands. She dared not look back, partly because she might trip, but more because she would freeze if she saw it bearing down on her. Two hundred metres. The open hatch promised sanctuary. Zack – be there!
She ran full throttle, clutching her helmet in her right hand. She’d seen the scalpel-sharp claws: one slash and she was history. She flung the helmet over her right shoulder, and counted. One – Two –…  She winced at the crunching noise. As if it was egg-shell, not carbo-titanium, for God’s sake!  How far behind? She couldn’t work it out. It didn’t matter; the hatch was barely a hundred and fifty metres away. She raced, ignoring the muscle-lock cramping her lungs, the strain in her thighs begging her to slow down. Go to hell!
Pumping her arms harder, she drew in a breath, and vaulted a table-height rock, grazing her left knee and almost losing footing as she landed hard on the other side, arms flailing to maintain balance. As she got back into her stride, the ground shook as the creature hit the deck behind her without missing a beat. Her legs finally got the message – she increased her speed.


"Now would be good, Pierre," Zack bellowed. He watched Kat’s mouth twitch, her thin lips pull back in fear, eyes darting wildly beneath pale eye-lids. His instinct was to place one of his stocky black hands on Kat’s shoulder to comfort her, or else shake her to bring her out of it, but he stopped short – they’d agreed not to wake her. Pierre strode in as fast as the synth-grav would allow, deftly manoeuvring between the stasis cots in the cramped second compartment, pianist-length fingers meshed in a tangle of short black hair even a crew-cut couldn’t subdue.
            "About time," Zack said.
Pierre primed a contact syringe, and in one smooth movement flicked it switchblade-style towards the side of Kat’s neck. There was a hiss, like a sharp intake of breath. A wash of deep red crawled across her face then vanished.
            "Will it calm her down?" Zack frowned at her normally smooth, fine-featured face, now crumpled like a piece of paper, slick with sweat.
            "No, but she’ll realise she’s in a dream. If she remembers, she can control it."
            Zack looked down at their youngest crew member. Yeah, if she ain’t too shit-scared. Her chest rose and fell with increasing speed. "Her vitals okay?"
            Pierre tapped the holopad next to the cot – several red spikes radiated outward, but none pierced the edge of the surrounding green hexagon. "Tolerable. In the dream she’s running, so her lungs work faster."
            Zack chewed his lower lip. The nightmare was coming more regularly the closer they got to Eden, and Kat reckoned it wasn’t a normal dream, always exactly the same. So they’d decided to try a lucid dreaming technique, injecting a stim during the nightmare, so she could maybe control it, and recall what was chasing her.
            Pierre gazed into the mid-distance as he discarded the syringe. "Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?" He said it as if reciting, a hint of his Parisian accent lingering.
Zack sighed, wondering for the hundredth time why Pierre wasn’t back in MIT, surrounded by his best friends – equations and a muon-scope. "Spare me the psy-crap, Pierre." He glared at him. They both knew why she was running.
"I have to go. I’m finishing some tests. There’s a strange variance –"
‘Whatever.’ Zack gave him a sideways look. ‘I thought you liked Kat?’ 
Pierre hung there for a moment, fish-mouthed, then spun on his heel, and retreated to the cockpit.
            Zack re-focused his attention on Kat, planted himself on a mag-stool, and leant back against the graphite-grey inner hull. "Take it from me, kid, sometimes it’s okay to run. You run as fast as you damned well can."


Kat felt a pricking on the side of her neck, like an insect bite. Her cheeks and scalp burned. It was the signal she’d rehearsed, so she knew she was in the nightmare again – the same one she’d had every night for the past week – injected with the stim as planned. But it didn’t help – just because she knew she was in a nightmare didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified. Yet she needed to see the creature, to bring back details that would be flushed away as always, moments after waking. She knew what she had to do to control the dream: hold her hand up in front of her face and see her palm. That was all.
Even as she began to raise her right arm, a bone-shaking roar erupted from the creature. Her ears shrivelled in pain. The wake of the primal howl hit the back of her head. Though she didn’t think it possible, she increased her pace one final time, as if her transition from mortal fear to pure panic allowed one last gear-shift. But it was right behind her. She wasn’t going to make it. She tried to believe it was just a dream, telling herself: Look around! See it before you wake up! But she couldn’t – she imagined its claws raising, ready to strike.
For the first time she noticed that although she was in a desert, the light was a ghostly green, like an old radar screen. Why? No time to figure it out. Zack was at the hatch, beckoning wildly with one hand, levelling the shoulder-mounted cannon with the other. She tried one last time to turn to see the creature, but her neck refused. "Get down!" she heard Zack shout, just as the creature swiped her feet from under her, and she fell, flying through the air like a high diver in slow motion, before sprawling downwards, crashing through the desert floor into blackness.

So, does Kat's nightmare come true? Well, you'll have to read it. And if you like it, read all the way through to the last book in the series (Eden's Endgame), because near the end of the book another protagonist ends up facing a variant on this scenario, in a fight-or-flight scene that stills sends a shiver tinkling down my spine.

More generally, fear is one of the strongest emotional reactions we can have, and just because it's science fiction, authors shouldn't be afraid (!) of using it. The nightmare, despite being a trope, is something we all experience every now and again, and remains a useful device for fiction and science fiction. And as we venture out into space to greet who knows what, our fear of predators is hardly likely to go away.

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