We Are Who We Eat
Today in Creepy Science, two separate teams of scientists have discovered that blood transfusions from young donors can actually repair organs and tissue in older individuals. There are a couple points that need making before everybody starts celebrating/freaking out:
- The studies were performed in mice, not people, so nobody is going to come for your blood just yet, kids. The outlook seems positive, though.
- The potential for getting cancer if this is done is probably going to increase. Then again, cancer might just beat out dying of Alzheimers (I know I’d pick cancer over Alzheimers any day of the week, but that’s just me), especially since the former is frequently treatable and the latter isn’t.
- You wouldn’t be drinking blood or bathing in it or anything. It would be a transfusion. The kind you’d get from a blood donor, most likely. Maybe even one of your own kids.
Why This is So Cool/Terrifying
Blood has serious symbolic and metaphoric significance to most cultures on the planet. The idea that it might even hold some kind of key to longevity or even (maybe) immortality is a great big gift to speculative authors everywhere. Hell, this article today probably launched at least a dozen new vampire novels, each probably more odious than the last (sorry vampire fans, but you should know what I’m talking about). Even a cursory look at Christian religious ritual demonstrates our solemn fascination with blood; if you go to Church, you’re drinking the blood of Jesus every time you take the Eucharist (well, assuming you’re one of the many Christian sects that believe in transubstantiation). Why are you doing this? Well, to reaffirm your devotion to the ideals he set forth. Your reward for this loyalty? Say it with me now:
Yeah. There isn’t a story in that, no sir. No way this scientific study has seriously interesting narrative legs. Nothing to see here, folks – move along.
Fantasy and horror editors and agents across the globe better hold on to their seats. The number of blood-sucking takes of lunatics exsanguinating children to sustain their wicked lives is about to hit a pretty serious bump. Science Fiction publishers are going to start reading about dark futures where our youth are financially supported by the old while the old are physiologically supported by the young. Wild, wild stuff. Some of it will probably be pretty cool, too. Heck, I might even write some.
To me, though, this bit of news (even assuming it pans out) isn’t dystopian doom and gloom. Like all technological breakthroughs, no doubt it will be abused in various ghoulish ways. It also, though, has the potential to save people’s lives – Alzheimer’s patients, people with weak hearts, people suffering from neurological disorders, etc., etc.. I’m choosing not to be all doom and gloom about this. Like all technologies and scientific breakthroughs, this one (if it works out) will have it’s pros and cons. If this thing can help turn back the clock on a wide variety of devastating neurological diseases, I’m going to call it a win.
Of course, I’ll also be warning my kids against friendly-looking old ladies with syringes and medical tubing. You know, just in case.
The Importance (and Danger) of Myth
I’ve been coming across various blogs, sites, and fantasy-related discussions in which participants have discussed the
importance of understanding and studying mythology when constructing a fantasy world. This has particularly been the case when discussing the creation of urban or contemporary fantasy novels (which, for the initiated, are those fantastical stories set in our own world–think things like the Dresden Files, Harry Potter (to some extent), Twilight, most zombie or vampire tales, etc.). Now, on the one hand, I agree that having a good grasp of various cultural myths can be a great help when world-building. On the other hand, I also see the adherence to and obsession with the minutiae of these myths to be a severe limitation on what the fantasy genre can do.
If I write a story and I want fairies in it, it would behoove me to read up on fairie mythology–this only makes sense. If you want to contribute to a long-standing ‘conversation’ if you will surrounding a certain topic, you ought to do a little bit of research. However, if I want to change my fairies so that they operate at variance with the behavior of the prototypical ‘fairie’, I should be able to do so. In fact, I would go so far as to encourage people to do so. It is a constant wonder to me that the speculative fiction genres are, at times, so damned rigid in what is acceptable or unacceptable. The whole reason the genre is called ‘fantasy’ is that you can do anything you damned well please. Fairies aren’t real, so there are no actual rules regarding how they can be portrayed. There are only perceived rules.
That said, you can’t go about writing about amphibious vampires who feed on gelatin and thrive in the sunlight and still call them vampires. There is a certain essence to ‘vampireness’ that must be respected in order for your contribution to the vampire genre to have meaning. To figure out what that is, you need to really sit down and think about what a ‘vampire’ really represents. I, personally, find vampires cowardly and pathetic creatures–slaves to their baser instincts and self-absorbed parasites too terrified of their own mortality to accept it. Now, if I take that idea (what I consider to be the thematic core of vampirism) and filter it into a vampire character that picks and chooses from the mythology in accordance with the overall idea, I’m going to wind up with something that is both vampire and not vampire. My vampires won’t be heroic or even anti-heroic. They will be irresponsible, cowardly, ruled by fear and lust and hunger. They will probably have only false bravado, not the firm confidence of Dracula. I will probably give them an aversion to sunlight, but not for the same reasons everyone else does. I won’t have them working in large family groups. I won’t have vampirism be a disease or a contagious curse. You’ll know they’re vampires, but I’ll be using them in a different way and for a different purpose. They will remake the old into the new.
The above is what I think fantasy should always seek to do. Take a bit of the old, but don’t enslave yourself to it. If you want to make fairies more like regular people with regular jobs, then do it. Who cares if that isn’t the trope? Tropes lead you to predictable stories, boring characters, and forgettable writing. Take the tropes and break them. Make up your own rules. Twist the ideas around into something new–something of your own. It’s okay; you’re allowed to do it. Not every werewolf is killed by silver bullets. Yours can be different, new, interesting–they can go from the mundane to the fantastic.
That, after all, is where we fantasy fans all want to be.
Where Have All the Wizards Gone?
The undead are in-vogue of late. Vampires, Zombies, Ghosts and so-on are all pretty popular in movies, TV, books, and so on. One thing I’ve found odd, however, is that more and more of these critters are the result of either technology or religion to almost the exclusion of all else, and I’ve been thinking about that idea vis-a-vis the undead, and I’m not sure I love the idea.
The Undead and Science
The science-creating-the-undead thing is much, much more recent than the religious angle and, for my money, also more ridiculous. Science – even pseudoscience – is poorly applied to things that are ostensibly dead. Just think about it for a few minutes and much of the scientific explanations for werewolves, zombies, vampires, and the rest of our popular monsters rapidly fall apart.
I’ve already explored why this idea is nonsense for zombies (if you don’t recall, check out my anti-zombie manifesto), but let’s take Vampires, instead. The Blade franchise, in addition to others, have maintained that Vampires are essentially people who (1) don’t grow old, (2) drink blood, (3) are ‘allergic’ to silver, (4) have poor defenses against sunlight, and so on. You watch Blade devising new technogadgets to combat them, they rationalize things like ‘UV light works like sunlight’ and ‘the vampires can wear sunblock, so…’ and on and on and on. Thing is, they very rarely take it all the way, which is what I find annoying. I ask lots and lots of questions like ‘why can’t the metabolize regular food instead of drinking blood?’ or, ‘if they can’t make their own blood, why don’t they get transfusions instead of drinking it – wouldn’t that be faster?’ or ‘if they’re dead, how come they don’t rot?’ and so on and so forth until I just get so frustrated with the damn thing and start yelling ‘why didn’t you just call it magic? MAGIC!’
The Undead and Religion
The other common origin for the undead comes from religious or spiritual material. Now, this I don’t really have a problem with, per se, in that this is from antiquity. Usually used in reference to ghosts more than any other kind of undead, the religious/spiritual angle is a story with lots of dramatic potential and is firmly based in our collective human canon – everybody’s got their stories of demons, ghosts, vampires, and so on who had something terrible happen to them and they linger on in this world, waiting for something to either destroy them or show them how to ‘cross over’, so to speak.The only issue I have with this particular version of the tale is that it’s so, well, wishy-washy. There aren’t any rules, really, and it’s the rules that make monsters fun. Vampires are the most popular not because they are inherently the coolest, but because they have the most lore built up around them in the form of rules, laws, and ‘gubbins’, if you will, that give the protagonists in stories involving vampires more to ‘sink their teeth into’, if you’ll pardon the pun. Without these rules, we’re stuck with talking about our feelings and trying to ‘make things right’. This can be interesting, but it doesn’t lend itself to rip-roaring adventure, exactly.
The Middle Ground
What I’d like to see more of (and it’s out there, mind you, just I want more) are monster stories that (1) acknowledge we’re working magically here and (2) have set rules in place to keep things crunchy. Buffy/Angel tended to do this, I think Supernatural has done this to some extent, and of course their are Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, but it hasn’t seemed to propagate.
Perhaps that’s just me, anyway, from my position on the periphery of the Urban Fantasy subgenre. Perhaps this is just my knee-jerk reaction to zombie mania, which I find aggrevating, and to the wussing-down of vampires from ‘fearsome monsters’ to basically plain old supervillains/heroes (if that). I want me some scary-ass new monsters, or old ones dredged up, preferably created by wizards or, better yet, are wizards themselves.
Yeah, I’m talking about the lich.
You know what I mean – the oldest, nastiest, most badass undead creature in Dungeons and Dragons, brought back into a new housing. The most recent incarnation of this fella was Voldemort, really, but I’d like to see more done with the idea. Heck, I plan on doing more with it myself, provided I ever get around to it. I want an intelligent, powerful, sorcerous monster who is neither attractive nor numerous to kick some mortal ass. I think much could be done with these wizards-turned-immortal undead, and I’m hoping it happens.
I’m also hoping I can contribute. Perhaps I’ll introduce the character I have in mind here on this blog sometime. Maybe I’ll discuss the Rules of the Lich. In any event, I really want to see fewer plots involving monster-making viruses or demonic possession.