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Science Fiction Undead

Go to virtually any bookstore and a seemingly odd decision awaits your eyes. Amid Biography, Western, Romance, Self Help and loads of other genres, two invariably get lumped together–Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yet as fans of either (or both) can tell you, many are the differences between the two. Why then group them together?

An editor at DAW books answered that for me. Marketing. By and large the fans of the two have enough crossover that for marketing purposes it is easier to treat them as one.

Which brings us to vampires. Despite their clear and obvious origins in myth, folklore, the supernatural, attempts to explain the undead in scientific (or more accurately science fictional) terms keeps popping up. Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” maybe be among the first examples of such. The first film version, starring Vincent Price and now in public domain, retained the so-called scientific explanation–a fictional bacillus that created all the symptoms of a vampire. An infection has been the usual ‘take’ on this idea. Barnabas Collins was cured of the cell in his body that made him undead. The horrific creatures in “The Strain” trilogy are biological monsters, their DNA reshaped by some kind of disease. All three “Blade” movies were built around the same idea, explored in three different ways (with at the end biological weapons used effectively against Dracula’s children, wiping out the species as a whole).

The other major way of blending science fiction and vampires can be summed up in one word–Aliens. Fans of the marvelously cheesy series “Buck Rogers” might recall the episode involving a life-drinking Vorvon, which looked like a blend between Nosferatu and something from “Lost In Space.” Yet in true stereotypical fashion he sought a bride, Wilma Deering, to join him in eternal night and everlasting hunger. A kind of psychic vampiric race held center stage in “Planet of the Vampires” with its eerily effective blend of gothic with space ships and ray guns. More spectacularly (at least in terms of budget, cast and special effects) the movie “Lifeforce” took that idea further. Within Haley’s Comet awaited an ancient vessel, discovered by the international space expedition. Mostly the ship contained dehydrated bat creatures, but three perfect human specimen in crystal containers were brought back to earth, unleashing a holocaust. A nice touch was that Frank Finlay, who played Van Helsing for the 1979 BBC “Count Dracula” played a similar part here. More surreal was to see Patrick Stewart, destined to one day command “Star Trek”‘s Enterprise, play a man possessed by a female vampire seeking to seduce Steve Railsback (aka Charles Manson of the film “Helter Skelter”). The film was based (rather loosely) on the novel with a more explicit title–“The Space Vampires.” (For those interested in such things, Finlay later played Jacob Marley to Stewart’s Ebeneezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”).

One trope found in the idea of alien vampires remains a substitution–they usually drink not blood but life. In strictly scientific terms, this falls under hand-waving (i.e. ‘business’ that seems impressive but doesn’t really make much sense) because in fact there is no known accepted definition of ‘life’ and those generally in use describe it as a condition or process, not a substance subject to removal. The original series of “Star Trek” got around this by having an alien vampire (complete with super-strength and hypnotic powers) that consumed salt. There was also an foreign erotic film wherein the alien vampires sought a different liquid from the human body. Here’s a hint: Of necessity, all their victims were male.

Possibly the single greatest source of science fiction vampires has been the long-running “Doctor Who“…

In “State of Decay” we encountered the Great Vampires and their human drones, ultimate destroyed via a spaceship wielded like a stake into the King’s vast body. The episode “The Curse of Fenric” we met a Haemavore from Earth’s far future, a sad deformity whose bloodlust could be spread (and who could be warded by a psychic emanation of pure faith–meaning, as demonstrated, a true believing communist could hold them at bay with a hammer and sickle). In “Smith and Jones” we met a Plasmavore who used a straw to drink her victim’s blood. For the eleventh doctor, we also met the title characters in “Vampires of Venice” (although they only looked like vampires to human senses–still they did have fangs, burn in sunlight and drink blood).

Most recently on American T.V. the show “Smallville” created a science-fictional vampire coven/sorority of vampires (including for a time Lana) as a result of Kryptonite-mutated bats (never mind that vampire bats are not native to North America much less Kansas).

But of course the real question is why explain vampires in this way at all? Why not go with demonic possession or simply call it magic? Maybe the best explanation is to realize that science holds much of mythic power once monopolized by religion. A shrine or holy relic might offer the hope of a miraculous cure, but a modern hospital does that and more reliably. The internet is less pretty but more impressive than a Palantir, while an actual voyage to the moon is at least in competition with reported sightings of saints or angels. Little wonder then the trope to explain the fascinating nightmares who seduce us to drink our blood in terms of mysterious science, as well as mysterious faith.

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.
Barnabas CollinsbladebookstoreDoctor Whodraculafantasyfolklorehaemavorei am legendLifeforcenosferatuPlanet of the Vampiresplasmavorerichard mathesonScience FictionSmallvilleStar TrekState of DecaysupernaturalThe Curse of FenricThe Space VampiresThe StrainundeadVincent PriceVorvon

david • December 28, 2010


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  • I like the idea of being able to scientifically explain vampires. Science can make it more interesting than the usual undead/supernatural bit. I am using science in my upcoming 2011 novel.

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  • I like science fiction explanations of vampires if they’re done well, but it’s not easy. You can bulls*** a lot more in fantasy as long as your mythology’s internally consistent.