Sci-fi is starting to take advantage of the contagious horrors of memes
A new micro-genre of science fiction explores how mind control is the very heart of our network-based existence
April 6, 2022
And then I woke up
Tordotcom (from April 12)
“The quality was not very good, but it was good enough for a debate,” said Spence, the narrator of Malcolm Devlin’s short but powerful horror story. And then I woke up. He describes the viral video that started the zombie apocalypse. “Some people said the men kissed, some insisted that one bite the other’s neck,” Spence recalls. “He ate him, they said. Eat him!”
Without giving too much away, Spence talks about these events from the rehabilitation facility where infected people are slowly reintegrated into society. But if you think I just ruined the plot, think again. This zombie apocalypse is like nothing you’ve learned to expect from previous books and movies. Devlin has written a horror story where “zombies” are memes.
Memes are, of course, ideas that are suitable for jumping from one brain to another. Like that trick where someone tells you not to think of an elephant, once the image has entered your mind, you can not stop the chain of events that takes place. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme for the phenomenon in 1976, when it was a relatively unproblematic aspect of how cultural units are transmitted through society. But in our hyper-network-based world, memetic proliferation has become uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and there’s something a little worrying about that. From QAnon’s conspiracy theory to the cheeseburger cat, there’s nothing to say about what will appear in your feed or who produced it. Whether you agree or not, it will nestle between the folds of your brain and begin to lay its eggs.
This ominous process is well established in neuroscience: where our expectations lead, our perceptions of reality follow. Memes can set these expectations, distorting and distorting them with someone else’s story. Sometimes these are harmless, like the dress that seems to be both blue and white or the sound version yanny / laurel. Other times they are more ominous, like the kissing men who may or may not be cannibals, or a conspiracy theory that a pizza restaurant had pedophiles in its basement. Memes can even distort what is right in front of your face.
Although the events in Devlin’s book are terribly reasonable, in There is no anti-mathematics department by Sam Hughes (also known by the pseudonym qntm), perceptual expectations are handled by some of the scariest supernatural beings imaginable. When deceived unseen by almost everyone, they wreak havoc on an unsuspecting public, who understand things by inventing stories to explain the horrors around them. A creature that crawls around and gathers fingers, for example, is explained away as an unusually high proportion of kitchen and carpentry accidents.
Devlin and Hughes are not the first to explore the power of infectious memes over our reality. IN Cities & Cities, China Miéville showed readers two overlapping metropolises where citizens are trained from birth to “refer” to all evidence of the other city and its inhabitants.
Writers are increasingly waking up to the hypnotic power of memes, a topic that is becoming more relevant each year. These three books are a good introduction to this growing microgenre of science fiction. I recommend all three to the skies. You may end up with a mild case of existential horror, but at least, unlike the protagonists of the stories, you will know what to expect.
Sally also recommends …
The sea of calm
From the fine mind that produced Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel comes another pleasure: a cross-century, cross-genre, time-traveling book about the nature of reality, set in the near future of pandemics and parallel worlds.
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