CLICHÉ CRACKDOWN: ALIEN PARASITES?
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In conversation with GD Penman, we consider the familiar tropes of popular scifi… and life. This week it’s…
Alien parasites taking over humans. How did they evolve? Ticks shouting “Today a sheep, tomorrow the universe” ?
Penman: better to picture it the other way around. “Ugh I am used to four lobed brains, these humans are so cramped”
Ødin: That would be the four lobed brain of an alien’s pet space dog after they let it out for a pee on Morlikon 9, presumably.
Penman: Genius parasites elevating species to sentience and letting them overthrow the ones who kept them as mere pets.
Ødin: I like that, but the whole parasite-genius relationship is hard to take. Parasites are nature’s slackers, surely?
Penman: All they have is their minds. No bodies to fall back on. The only way they can improve is intellectually.
Ødin: Or “just like, hang out bra and let the big thing do all the stuff, yeah”
Penman: The universe is full of really buff idiot species. Genius is a relative term. A chipmunk that can make fire is god of the chipmunks.
Ødin: Maybe, but the chipmunk’s fleas aren’t watching and plotting to take over, they’re just nibbling on dead skin and sniggering at Comedy Central. They’re stoners, basically.
Penman: We are talking about mind controlling parasites! Fleas are lazy bastards. Mind control is some heavy lifting!
Ødin: Fair point. But aren’t the mind controllers just doing it because they look too young/small to get served in the local off licence?
Penman: In nature, mind controllers are generally just tying to get their host killed in such a way that helps their mating cycle. So in a sense fulfilling the same role as a bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine.
Ødin: Precisely. So motivated by a bottle of Bucky (possibly White Lightning) they take over another species, and do what? Get a kebab I suppose…
Penman: Step 1: Take over another species. Step 2: Get busy. Step 3: Take over another species. Brain slugs are sexual adventurers.
Ødin: I guess so, but can’t help wondering if that could end badly if the species they take over is hellbent on self-destruction through alcoholism or heart attacks from eating ethnic junk food. Or, for example, by taking over a species that’s polluting it’s own world so badly the climate is changing. Oddly reassuring, that… I mean, any self-respecting alien parasite would take a look at our carbon emissions and say “there goes the neighbourhood” and move on to a cleaner civilisation.
Penman: Cerebral Worms arrive on a comet to save the world from the bloody stupid humans.
Ødin: Or perhaps engineered thusly by environmentally conscious mega-beings who don’t want to visit the smoggier parts of the galaxy in person. They send in the parasites, we go green, then they show up? Hmmm. All the same, parasites are never intellectually complex. Complex life-cycles, but compared to creatures with brains, pretty dull.
Penman: Well vertebrate mammals don’t tend to be all that impressive as far as smarts go… yet here you are talking to me.
Ødin: You’re one of my favourite vertebrates, but is that me talking or just the Goa’uld in my brain stem? (I can’t believe I used the ‘G-U’ word. As in the Fawlty Towers show for alien parasites “don’t mention the Stargate SG1”)
Penman: Weird that my go-to for mind control parasites are actually the Yeerks from Animorphs. Then back to Khan’s ear worms.
Ødin: Not sure the Tau Ceti eel (see what I geek I am?) counts, it doesn’t control you… just makes you suggestible. It’s the tree hugging hippie of mind control parasites.
Tau Ceti Eel 1: “Let’s control this guy with the terrible fake Russian accent”
Tau Ceti Eel 2: “Oh Clive, you’re such a stress head. How about we just give him some pointers on doing what Ricardo Montalban says?”
Which is my point. I mean, how did that parasite behaviour evolve? “Hey man, we can’t control people but we make people easy to order about” Brain slug fail.
Penman: Side effect/GM Eel. Or it was from a planet of very strong willed creature that couldn’t compromise. Saved them from extinction.
Ødin: Maybe their the civil servants of the mind controlling parasite world. They just like organising stuff for people. (NOT THEIR, “they’re”. Autocorrect made me write that… wait a moment… mind control parasites, autocorrect? Coincidence? Or “coin cider nonce” as my autocorrect says.)
Penman: The alien parasites don’t need to control your brain, they have your phone. Just need to switch around a few words and reshuffle your schedule and their plans for world domination come to fruition!
Ødin: I asked Siri about that, and she said “Move along, Ake, nothing to see here.”
Penman: There is a lot of trouble with parasites crossing over species barriers. Either our aliens parasite friends are super adaptable and capable of surviving in wildly different environments or they come from a planet with very human brain like conditions. That might explain why they are interested in our little bit of galactic real estate, their only choices are inside human brains or back home on the briny spinal fluid planet with their parents.
They may not even be parasites naturally, the conditions inside a human might just be ideal for them. Perhaps they were non-intelligent kleptoplasts and now they want to help the rest of their species ascend to sentience by getting up some noses and eating themselves smart.
Ødin: Or maybe we know the backstory already. The Incredible Voyage. Inner Space. They were once a sentient race, went miniature and thought “hey, I kinda dig this”
Penman: I enjoyed the Global Frequency approach to alien brain takeovers being caused by a viral thought rather than a physical parasite. Memetic invasion!
Ødin: I like that, but without Donald Pleasance or Dennis Quaid and that nutty guy off Mad Max 2 / Commando flying about in stuff, battling your white blood cells and so on, it just feels a bit… meh.
Penman: Back to that slacker problem again, “Ugh, the universe is so hard. Lets just go live inside someone warm and steal some of their food.” There is one hell of a plot twist though, waves and waves have been invading earth for millenia and miniaturising themselves so that there is enough room for them all. All the bacteria in your guts are alien colonists!
Ødin: Which explains my intestinal carbon emissions… OH MY GOD PENMAN… YOU”RE A GENIUS!!!!
Penman: It has been mentioned before.
Ødin: And presumably, all they have to do is stay away from noses / lungs / teenage boys’ scrotums… unless they’re planning to make a quick getaway.
Penman: “Finally I can escape from this insipid teenager into… wait a minute is that tissue paper?”
Alien parasites taking over humans. How did they evolve? Ticks shouting “Today a sheep, tomorrow the universe” ?… Should this cliché die?
Penman: The old brain parasite has been a classic of the scifi genre ever since directors in the ’50s realised that they saved a fortune on special effects budgets. Even to this day we are seeing new and innovative stories with little brain slugs coming out, the most recent notable being from big name author Stephanie Myers which revolved around a love triangle between a girl, a boy and the alien parasite controlling her body. Yes, the woman that wrote Twilight. Really.
If we are honest there are a lot of scientific reasons that an alien being able to control our minds, unless engineered for that purpose, is a bit of a shaky concept. How many of the big ideas in speculative fiction make the slightest bit of sense under our current understanding of science? The “alien within” works in stories because it lets us examine the world with a paranoid eye. It is a garbled version of the “I think therefore I am,” thread of philosophy. I think therefore I am, but what are all of you? It played along wonderfully with the cold war suspicions of double agents and as with all concepts that are moving beyond their time, we are finally seeing the brain parasite story starting to spread its wings and leave the cranial nest.
Verdict: You can’t get rid of it now, it is just getting interesting!
Ødin: Whilst I’d be the first to admit that’s we’ve seen some corkers using this trope, where humans are replaced, supplanted, replicated and enslaved by a malevolent unseen enemy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, They Live, The Invaders etc.) I can’t shake this feeling that they all hinge on the same self-defeating paradox.
One the one hand, these creatures depend on evolution to create their host organisms for conquest, but on the other hand, they seem curiously devoid of a decent evolutionary backstory themselves. Most parasites follow a pretty basic modus operandi, they use their host as a place to hang out and reproduce. And even in cases where their presence in the host causes them to behave a certain way (they say that fungal infections can make people crave chocolate and sugar, for example) or produce brain fevers that alter your mood and behaviour, in those cases it’s a very different category of affect on the host’s biology than the clandestine plots to seize control of the organs of society and create a slave race. I mean, it’s not like the parasites can talk to each other directly… which leads to a strange notion that although suspicious humans can’t be sure if someone is enslaved by a brain parasite or not, the parasites are really rather trusting of everyone who says “I’m enslaved by a brain parasite” to them.
So they are masters of the clandestine usurping of other races, but have no suspicion themselves. A liar who always tells the truth to other liars. Freedom motivated entirely by slavery. Something that evolved to prevent evolution from taking its natural course in its own ecosystem… which it depends on to evolve… except it can’t evolve because it’s being controlled… by them… which is… what was I saying?
Verdict: There is no paradox. This human was confused. Breed and consume.