When Are Vampire Stories Science Fiction?

Illustration for article titled When Are Vampire Stories Science Fiction?

Click to viewBy all rights, vampires should make terrible subjects for science fiction. Your classic Bram Stoker-inspired nosferatu is a rather mystical affair – dead, cursed, and in spiritual exile from the Christian God, achieving immortality through a parody of a sacred sacrament. And yet, writers and filmmakers seem determined to wedge their favorite bloodsuckers into science fiction. But can a story be truly science fiction while remaining true to the spirit of the legends? We looked at the various ways artists try to cross the genres.Vampirism as a Virus Given that conditions like tuberculosis and porphyria are likely inspirations for the vampire myth, it's not surprising that the most common way writers introduce vamps into science fiction is through disease. Books like Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and Scott Westerfeld's Peeps carefully plot the nature of the vampiric germ, whose cannibalistic victims wreak havoc on the populace, and action flop Ultraviolet centers around a government-created supersoldier virus that escapes into the civilian population. But does it work? It can, but results often fall to one genre or the other. Both Matheson and Westerfeld take great pains to describe how disease could cause the classic vampiric traits – even suggesting psychological explanations for the bloodsuckers' aversion to religious symbols. And Matheson's book succeeds as both an apocalyptic narrative – humanity decimated and transformed by pathogen – and an inversion of the vampire myth. But Westerfeld's bloodthirsty peeps, despite their similar grounding in science, occupy an otherwise typical urban fantasy of monsters and the agents who hunt them. Conversely, Ultraviolet is set in a technologically advanced future, but its hemophagic affliction is simply a pretense for giving Milla Jovovich superpowers.

Vampires as Aliens When you encounter life on a distant planet, you don't expect humans to be its favorite food. But it happens all the time. Robert Darvel, the engineer hero of Gustave Le Rouge's Mars series, finds the Red Planet inhabited by bat-winged beings hungry for his blood. And a trip through the Stargate brings the Atlantis expedition face-to-face with the Wraith, creatures so dependent on human energy for sustenance that they maintain breeding farms. But does it work? Actually, it works quite well. Despite substituting extraterrestrials for the undead, these stories capture a key essence of the vampire myth: that nagging feeling that we may not be on top of the food chain. And, while we hope first contact will bring us to a benevolent and enlightened race, these stories play neatly to our fear of ending up in a warming tray at some intergalactic buffet.

Vampires in the Future What if vampires exist, but they're lying in wait? A nuclear holocaust, a few world-shattering wars, and they'll rise up to snatch global supremacy from the human race. Dystopian futures are bad enough without having to worry that someone's going to take a chunk out your neck. But does it work? Perhaps. The post-apocalyptic world of the Vampire Hunter D films is alternately so gothic and so alien that, despite its cybernetic horses, rocket ships, and atomic mutants, it is ultimately fantastical rather than speculative. But Fray, Joss Whedon's futuristic expansion of the Buffyverse, has a sci-fi edge: it takes place in universe its audience already knows, a world much like our own, but with demons and better dialogue. Vampires retain their mystical elements, but technology has advanced even as hellspawn threaten to overrun the Earth. Fantasy and science fiction operate in tandem, so that Melaka Fray battles the undead as well as the biologically enhanced living, and is as handy with a scythe as with her retro ray gun.

Vampiric Technology But to be truly successful sci-fi, vampires shouldn't merely exist alongside superweapons and flying cars; they should use technology to suit their own uniquely vampiric needs. The Ina of Octavia Butler's The Fledgling experiment with genetic manipulation, introducing African human genes to increase their resistance to sunlight. And in True Blood, humanity learns of the existence of vampires only when perfected synthetic blood frees vamps from their dependence on warm bodies. But does it work? It turns out that fangs and tech can mix. Butler uses her biological vampires in much the same way she uses aliens and time travel – to explore themes of race, intimacy, and domination. But beyond that, her vampires present an allegory for the possible benefits and social consequences of altering our DNA. And while the synthetic blood beverage will likely be the major technological advance of True Blood, it does serve as an object lesson in the ways that technology reveals surprising truths about the world in which we live.


Chip Overclock®

I have to second the suggestion of Peter Watts' book BLINDSIGHT: vampires as ancient predators of early humans, bought back to life using genes from autistics and sociopaths, because - unfortunately - we need them. The book's discussion of The Chinese Room theory of AI is also fascinating.

I also second the UK miniseries ULTRAVIOLET: vampires are here, they have always been here, secret predators of humans. The series is especially interesting because it's not clear that the humans are actually the good guys, running roughshod over civil rights in an inquisition supported by both Church and State, killing the leeches using guns equipped with LCD sights (on which the leeches do NOT appear) and firing carbon-tipped bullets.