This morning I followed a link from Glenn Reynolds to Amazon's top 20 bestsellers in Science Fiction and Fantasy. I have been a devotee of science fiction for most of my life and have always favored the "hard" sci-fi, starting with Robert Heinlein's books aimed at young adolescent males (which inculcated libertarianism without the reader even being aware, something for which I will always be indebted to the late author.) In the golden years of Sci-Fi, most of the bestsellers were hard Sci-Fi, with an emphasis on science, and fantasy was the minority genre interest. This has changed.
In Amazon's Top 20, there 6 books about vampires (including 3 in the top 5), 6 books that are some variation of sword and sorcery fantasy (2 in the top 10), 2 books about witches, 2 related books about Roswell aliens (a variant of hard sci-fi apparently), 2 books about Magic, and 1 hard Sci-Fi epic. The remaining book is a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories which more properly would be considered detective stories but make it onto the Amazon Science Fiction and Fantasy list.
This very unscientific mini-survey reflects a change in the zeitgeist.
In the heyday of monster movies, the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Japanese monster, Godzilla, was recognized to be a manifestation of our fears of nuclear annihilation. Godzilla was unstoppably destructive and razed most of Tokyo to the ground (repeatedly, in sequels.) Godzilla was our nightmares become real.
At the same time Science Fiction was the most optimistic of genres, introducing us to worlds in which anything and everything was possible.
In the 21st century, our nightmares have changed. Why vampires? Vampires serve many different functions as a repository of anxiety. On the most personal level, the relationship between parent and child, in the setting of economic anxiety and modern notions of "helicopter parenting", reflect a deep seated anxiety over supplying and receiving sufficient emotional nurturance. Parents often experience their needy children as insatiable while children often experience helicopter parents, who cannot tolerate their separation-differentiation, as sucking the life out of their youthful bodies for the support of the older, waning parent. The fantasy of relationships as Vampire-Prey experiences is a common feature of modern relationship anomie.
Consider a recent article in Slate magazine. The imbalance on college campuses between successful young women and the relative paucity of successful young men (a result of long term trends de-emphasizing typically masculine work versus typically feminine pursuits) means that the sexual marketplace has shifted. Men find women easier to find for casual sex, leaving young men and women in trouble: [HT: Glenn Reynolds]
Sex Is Cheap
Why young men have the upper hand in bed, even when they're failing in life.
Jill, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, is one of the many young women my colleagues and I interviewed who finds herself confronting the sexual market's realities. Startlingly attractive and an all-star in all ways, she patiently endures her boyfriend's hemming and hawing about their future. If she were operating within a collegiate sexual economy that wasn't oversupplied with women, men would compete for her and she would easily secure the long-term commitment she says she wants. Meanwhile, Julia, a 21-year-old from Arizona who's been in a sexual relationship for two years, is frustrated by her boyfriend's wish to "enjoy the moment and not worry about the future." Michelle, a 20-year-old from Colorado, said she is in the same boat: "I had an ex-boyfriend of mine who said that, um, he didn't know if he was ever going to get married because, he said, there's always going to be someone better." If this is "the end of men," someone really ought to let them know.
And yet while young men's failures in life are not penalizing them in the bedroom, their sexual success may, ironically, be hindering their drive to achieve in life. Don't forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex. Today's young men, however, seldom have to. As the authors of last year's book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality put it, "Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy." They're right. But then try getting men to do anything.
A woman who is anxious and desirous of emotional sustenance which is withheld can easily see herself and be seen as a Vampire, while the man who takes what is most precious from her with nothing in return can easily see himself and be seen as a Vampire. Further, the lack of depth to sexual relationships, casual sex without commitment or emotional connection, leaves both being little more than Zombies. After all, what is a zombie but a hollowed out person who can no longer do anything productive?
In addition the dearth of traditional hard Science Fiction on Amazon's list reflects the current pessimism arising from an accelerating pace of change that has us all feeling at times as if we are living in a Science Fiction novel. In reaction, the ability to transport oneself to realms where Men are MEN and wield swords in manu a manu conflict, and where damsels are distressed (or alternately, powerful independent spirits, desirable and beautiful) offers a ready wish fulfillment for those who are burdened by too much reality in their lives even as it harkens back to a halcyon (imagined) past where one knew one's place in a stable world.
[On other levels, Vampire fantasies can relate to the sense that the current arrangements that most of us have established between work and play and love have become destabilized. The changes taking place in the economy as globalization grows means that the traditional, post-war arrangements are changing in unpredictable ways. (See Walter Russell Meade's discussion of Blue State Dems Turn on State, Local Workers for a sense of the dislocations involved.) We have workers feeling drained by the demands of their work and the diminution of sustenance (wages) that almost everyone is undergoing. The ubiquity of Zombies relates as easily to the dread of our foreign competitors (faceless hordes who threaten to overwhelm us) as to the spiritually deadened young men and women who couple and share physical intimacy without ever sharing emotional intimacy. These are topics for another post.]