It's not just paranoia. They really are watching you. The world we're living in is getting weirder and more dangerous all the time. So it's a good thing science fiction has been stockpiling dark mind-fraks for decades, full of smart survival strategies. Here are 10 paranoid science fiction tales that could keep you alive.
Nothing creates a sense of paranoia like being trapped and toyed with by a soulless but very funny AI. The life or death scenario is bad enough but GLADOS is just mean with her active mocking and judgment. Silent protagonist Chel is a great example of stoicism and not rising to the bait, but what really saves her is critical thinking and logic.
The Lesson: A cool head and good reasoning can get you out of any environmental puzzle. But perhaps the most important lesson of Portal is: Don’t drop your guard so easily when you think you’ve finished a dungeon crawl. You’ll just end up dragged back into a sequel.
9) I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Robert Neville is the sole survivor of pandemic which turned the rest of the human population into, essentially vampires. He researches the disease and how to kill the infected. He barricades When he meets Ruth, who appears to be uninfected, he's extremely suspicious of her. And he appears to be right, since she later admits to him that she is. The world is now inhabited by the infected, and they hate and are scared of him just as he is of them.
The Lesson: It's important not to assume that the group you fear and hate are treating you badly just because they're evil or wrong. They can be coming from a very similar place to you.
8) BLIT and it's sequels: What Happened at Cambridge IV, comp.basilisk FAQ, and Different Kinds of Darkness by David Langford
This short story features "basilisks" ─ images that contain patterns which cause the brain to crash, killing anyone who sees them. By the last of these stories, the images are being used by terrorist groups. Just try to conceive of a world where accidentally seeing a picture could lead to your death. Because of the danger, television and internet have been outlawed for the people's protection. Children have chips implanted in their brains which create a sort of artificial darkness to protect them from accidentally seeing a BLIT image. But a group of children start intentionally looking at basilisks in order the vaccinate themselves against them.
The Lesson: Anything can be a weapon and it can be anywhere. It's preferable to live with danger than to let the government restrict what you can see. And sometimes trying to shield people from the truth can do more harm than good. Image via Starship Sofa.
7) After by Francine Prose
After a school shooting at Pleasant Valley, grief and crisis counselor Dr. Willner arrives at nearby Central High School. In order to protect against such a shooting happening again, there are metal detectors, a strict dress code, random drug tests, and "Bus TV," a jingoistic history program shown on the bus rides to and from school (Did you know the atom bombs were dropped on Japanese wilderness areas?). It's like a microcosm of society's responses to larger-scale tragedies.
The Lesson: At first blush, this is a standard story about giving up individuality for security. But it also shows that you should always be wary of claims that it's necessary to fix society, or that we all have to start coming together against some imaginary enemy.
6) The Ticket That Exploded by William S. Burroughs
In the second book of what is known as the Nova Trilogy or Cut-up trilogy, the Nova Mob is attempting to destroy earth by turning everyone on earth against each other through the virus of language and addiction. Burroughs said the purpose of his writing was to “make people aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up the marks.” Burroughs wrote the book with an experimental technique he called cut-up which he would take a piece of his writing and others literally cut it up and rearrange the words into strange and challenging patterns. The very style of the book demonstrates how language controls how we are controlled to think about things. Unsurprisingly Inspector Lee and the Nova police use this technique to foil the plots of the Nova mob.
The Lesson: The two-fold lessons are: questions the fundamentals of a dialogue, and learn to use the words and technologies of your persecutors against themselves.
5) Redshirts by John Scalzi
The crew of the Intrepid, the Universal Union flagship, have figured out what everyone who's seen Star Trek already knows: going on away missions with senior officers is a surefire way to get killed. The crew doesn't know why that it is, it's just an observable fact. And, quite frankly, they don't care why it happens, they just want to avoid it. They have a system to alert them to senior officers looking for members of away teams, and they hide from them. They sacrifice newcomers to the away teams. And they have rituals that they practice to keep things moving. One character has deleted his records and hides in the walls, trying to figure out what's going on.
The Lesson: It's the protagonist, Andrew Dahl, whose delivers our takeaway message: Even when the universe is literally designed to kill you, it's better to search for a solution than to run away.
4) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Android bounty hunter Decker has a very long day in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He is bribed by androids, hunted by androids, arrested by an android police officer and made to doubt his own humanity, doubts a fellow bounty hunter’s humanity due to his callous behavior, finds out his wife is dabbling in depression and to top it all off his electric sheep is malfunctioning. This is all set on a dying Earth where it is being exposed the messiah of empathy is a fraud. What makes the book beautiful and in the end feel hopeful is the exploration of human connection. It is the recognition of empathy and his needs for real emotional experience that redeems Deckard from his ennui and alienation.
The Lesson: One lesson to take away is that humanity needs to retain its broader connection to life and emotion to distinguish itself from soulless machines.
3) The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Trial is the story of Josef K., who is summoned to a trial, but never given a room number or a time, just an address and a day. And is never told the charges leveled against him, just that they are very bad. In fact, everything about the proceeding is secret. Briefs that may never be read about charges that no one knows are very important the process. Everyone K. meets after the trial starts is somehow connected to the court, and they all have opinions about his position and what he should do.
The Lesson: None of it matters. In the end, the system feeds itself, and the individuals who compose it do not actually make a difference.
In this classic Terry Gilliam film, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a functionary inside a horrible crushing dystopia, where a police state is combined with terrible incompetence. Sam's only freedom comes inside his dreams, where he's soaring around with wings and armor inside a heroic fantasy. Until he meets a woman who looks like his dream lover, and decides to risk everything to save her. And it ends up really badly for him, with him once again escaping into a dreamworld, to escape from hideous torture.
The Lesson: Fantasizing can help you stay sane in a bleak world, but it's not true freedom — and ultimately, only facing reality will help you escape for real.
1) 1984 by George Orwell
Orwell's dystopian masterpiece offers a lot of warnings about our complicity in our own oppression — the most distressing part of the book is not the fact that Winston is tortured or that he gives up, but that he honestly comes to love Big Brother. But perhaps more useful is the parts where people parrot that "We have always been at war with Eastasia." These are people whose own memories change with what they're told.
The Lesson: Always remember that you're an unreliable narrator.