Paranoia

Tagged: Theme

Paranoia is common in sf; schizophrenia (which we also cover here, although aware that it is a wholly different condition) is comparatively rare. Both are also discussed in rather a different context under Psychology.

It is obviously necessary to distinguish between sf stories about paranoia (a fairly small group) and sf stories whose implicit attitude is paranoid (an extremely large group); most stories discussed below belong to the latter group. Paranoia has been defined as "a mental disorder characterized by systematic delusions, as of grandeur or, especially, persecution". The delusions (see Perception) of persecution that appear to lie behind much sf were discussed in a forum of Science Fiction Writers of America, and three papers were published together as a pamphlet, Paranoia and Science Fiction (coll 1967 chap), the contributors being Alexei Panshin, James Blish and also Joanna Russ, who argued that, historically, the paranoid element in sf stems largely from its roots in the Gothic. It is fundamental to the gothic that none of us is safe; that it is the nature of the Universe to contain menaces that may at any time, arbitrarily, threaten us. Such menaces play a prominent role in, for example, the stories of Ambrose Bierce, notably "The Damned Thing" (7 December 1893 Tales from New York Town Topics), a tale of a ravening invisible monster.

The Pulp magazines, especially Weird Tales, but also the early SF Magazines, were fond of such stories. H P Lovecraft is an almost perfect example of a writer whose work exhibits a systematic paranoid frame of reference; basic to his work was the idea that adherents of cults formed to worship malign gods are conspiring throughout the world to bring those gods physically back to rule us and feed from us. There was no lack of paranoid stories at the sf end of the spectrum, either; most stories of Invasion, whether by foreigners or Aliens, fall into this category. Paranoia is fundamental, too, to whole classes of Mainstream fiction, especially Absurdist fiction (often bordering on sf); Franz Kafka wrote little else but stories of this kind.

However, one should remember the old dictum that "the paranoid is not entirely wrong". Invasions, after all, do take place; people are sometimes persecuted (though seldom turned into beetles as in Kafka's famous story); the Universe, as simple observation shows, does indeed contain menaces. Also, one should not mistake the writer for the tale; paranoid stories are not necessarily written by paranoiacs, though some Genre-SF writers may have been consciously feeding the perceived paranoia of their readership.

Early paranoid stories in the sf magazines include "Parasite" (July 1935 Amazing) by Harl Vincent, where invading Aliens attach themselves to us and control our thoughts, and "The Earth-Owners" (August 1931 Weird Tales) by Edmond Hamilton, one of the first examples of a theme later to be enormously popular in sf: that Earth is already invaded and we are manipulated by aliens in disguise. Charles Fort formulated this paranoid insight pithily: "We are property." Many sf writers took the hint; e.g., Eric Frank Russell in Sinister Barrier (March 1939 Unknown; 1943; rev 1948) and Dreadful Sanctuary (June-August 1948 Astounding; 1951; rev 1963). A common variant on the theme, which must have won sf countless adherents among genuine paranoiacs, is that many people in mental hospitals are there because they have uncovered the conspiracy, but nobody will listen; an example is "Come and Go Mad" (July 1949 Weird Tales) by Fredric Brown, where it turns out that Earth is controlled by intelligent Hive Minds (of variously coloured ants); the man who uncovers the truth is cold-bloodedly driven mad by these Secret Masters (which, when malign, are another favourite focus of paranoid sf). Amazing Stories improved its circulation very considerably in the years 1945-1947 by publishing a series of purportedly fact-based stories by Richard S Shaver showing how we are all manipulated by malign Robots from Underground.

Conspiracy theories of the Shaver variety are extremely popular among propagandists of the Pseudosciences, many of whom themselves have believed that there is a conspiracy (or "cover-up", to use the prevalent terminology) among the scientific community to suppress their findings – a phenomenon discussed by Martin Gardner in his In the Name of Science (1952; rev vt Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science 1957) and by other writers, notably John T Sladek in The New Apocrypha (1973), which has many interesting observations about the relationship of the pseudosciences themselves to paranoia. Among the more popular Pseudoscience cults are the groups believing we are being secretly observed by UFOs and/or endorsing Erich von Däniken's belief that human progress is the result of alien intervention. Cult beliefs about UFOs are very widespread, as witness the popularity of the television series Project UFO (1978-1979) and 1980s tale like W Allen Harbinson's Projekt Saucer series (1980-1991) or Whitley Strieber's Communion (1987) and Transformation: The Breakthrough (1988), the latter purporting to be true accounts of the author's and then his son's abduction by aliens. The Strieber books were best-sellers; Project UFO was the first sf drama series ever to make it into the top twenty of US television programmes (in terms of number of viewers).

Further successful media evocations of paranoia are quite numerous, ranging from the individually directed menace of Duel (1971) to the vast pot-pourri of global conspiracy themes in The X-Files (1993-2002) and the endless layers of increasingly unlikely secrets within secrets uncovered in Lost (2004-2010).

An sf subgenre that fascinatingly mixes delusions of grandeur with delusions of persecution is the tyrannized-Superman story, especially associated with A E van Vogt, whose oeuvre probably contains more systematic conspiracy theories than that of any other writer in sf. Notable examples are Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946; rev 1951) and The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970). Similarly paranoid patterns occur in most of Keith Laumer's supermen stories of the 1960s and 1970s. Van Vogt was later to be associated with L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, whose appeal was in part to the same mixture: the desire to be superior and the fear of being different. Hubbard himself wrote one of the most forceful paranoia stories in pulp sf: Fear (July 1940 Unknown; 1957; in Typewriter in the Sky/Fear, coll 1951). This is a story both paranoid and about paranoia: it can be taken either as the case history of a psychotic killer or as a demonstration of demonic manipulation; in either event, a vivid and frightening series of delusions is projected.

"Dreams are Sacred" (September 1948 Astounding) by Peter Phillips has a hard-nose realist entering the mind of a paranoid via encephalograph-based Technology in order to destroy his grandiose fantasies at root (see Dream Hacking); but perhaps the most interesting study of a delusory framework is the one presented as fact in Robert Lindner's "The Jet-Propelled Couch: The Story of Kirk" (December 1954-January 1955 Harper's Magazine; included in The Fifty-Minute Hour: A Collection of True Psychoanalytic Tales, coll 1955; vt The Jet-Propelled Couch and Other True Psychoanalytic Tales 1955), a case-study of an sf fan who believes himself to be living in a Space Opera, and merely dreaming reality.

The other major paranoid variant is the story of the alien menace which can either change its shape or attach itself as a parasite to a human (see Parasitism and Symbiosis); either way, the fear is that the inhuman result looks just like us. This is an image from the very heart of paranoia: the idea that our friends, sweethearts or even parents could be mysteriously other, hateful, dangerous and to be destroyed. In real life such delusions have led to murder; they are disturbingly popular in sf. The most celebrated early example is John W Campbell Jr's story "Who Goes There?" (August 1938 Astounding) – filmed twice, the remake The Thing (1982) more closely and unnervingly duplicating Campbell's original theme as the comradeship of a research installation crumbles into terrible isolation – but the heyday of stories of this kind was the 1950s. This was the period of the Cold War, when almost daily propaganda encouraged US citizens to believe that a secret conspiracy of communists and homosexuals was preparing to subvert the American way of life; it was the time of the McCarthy hearings, and of the evangelical religious revival largely led by Billy Graham; paranoia was in the air. The frightening thing about communists and homosexuals, as everyone knew, was that from the outside they looked just like us. Hence, in part, the unprecedented popularity of stories about aliens who looked like humans, especially in the Cinema (see also Monster Movies), including such films as I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). (Over a decade later the theme entered television in the form of the series The Invaders, and there was a resurgence of the genre in the 1980s, with films like They Live [1988] and Society [1989], and television shows like War of the Worlds [1988-1990].) In book form the best known example is Robert A Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990), where the analogy between the alien group mind and totalitarian communism was made overtly.

The most notable exponents of paranoia in written sf were Richard Matheson, Robert Sheckley and Philip K Dick, Matheson in almost everything he wrote, especially his filmscripts for The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and, later, Duel (1971). (The latter film, like Demon Seed [1977], falls into the category of machines-are-out-to-get-us stories, much used by the writer and film director Michael Crichton.) Sheckley's style is more rueful and ironic; he pokes fun at paranoia even while most of his stories – which are clear demonstrations of his belief that the universe is out to get us – invoke it. By far the most important writer in this area has been Dick, in whose novels the basic question is often: "To what extent is a paranoid (or schizophrenic) frame of reference delusory, and to what extent is reality itself a mere construct erected defensively by the mind in order to maintain sanity?" Several of Dick's stories take place, in effect, in Alternate History settings actually projected by paranoid consciousnesses. Three novels relevant to the paranoia theme are Eye in the Sky (1957), Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964) and, most powerfully, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). Dick's novels are amazing in the emotional intensity of their psychodramas and their cavalier attitude towards reality, but dissolution of all meaning is (mostly) held at bay by the calm and wit of their narrative voice. Delusory systems that can in fact be entered and regarded as real are quite common in sf, especially among writers like Heinlein for whom solipsism is an important theme; an outstanding example is Richard McKenna, whose twelve sf stories published 1958-1968 project imaginary worlds as real over and over again; it is not clear whether this sort of story more closely approaches paranoia or schizophrenia. One paranoid idée fixe of the period turns up frequently, notably in stories by Frederik Pohl, with C M Kornbluth or solo: that a small group of very selfish near-immortals is secretly manipulating society behind the scenes. Examples are Gladiator-at-Law (June-August 1954 Galaxy; 1955; rev 1986), by both, and Drunkard's Walk (1960), by Pohl.

UK examples of paranoia stories from the 1950s are less common, though Alien Life (1954) by E C Tubb, in which a starship crew is taken over by alien parasites with the idea of invading Earth, would certainly qualify. This idea has been used several times since, as in the film Terrore Nello Spazio (1965; vt Planet of the Vampires) and Quatermass II (1957; vt Enemy from Space). (Most sf/Horror films fall into the paranoia category, Night of the Living Dead [1968], Demon Seed and Videodrome [1982] being good examples.)

The hysterical edge of 1950s paranoid sf did not dissipate as some of the worst Cold War fears subsided in the 1960s, but it did change its nature, when a different (and actual) war took place involving the USA, whose armed forces fought in Vietnam through the second half of the decade, not finally withdrawing until 1975. The assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963 also heightened feelings of paranoia. Elements of division in US society were reflected in a series of darkly paranoid films about Politics directed by John Frankenheimer, with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and Seconds (1966); the exiled left-wing director Joseph Losey (1909-1984), a victim of Hollywood politics in the 1950s, made The Damned (1961) in the UK; Stanley Kubrick added new ingredients to the paranoid brew with Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and Theodore Flicker both spoofed and endorsed conspiracy theorizing with The President's Analyst (1967). Also extremely relevant is the UK television series The Prisoner (1968), in which a political prisoner is subjected to ever more grotesque psychological manipulations.

In written sf, monuments of paranoia from the late 1950s to the early 1970s include: Algis Budrys's Who? (April 1955 Fantastic Universe; much exp 1958), in which nobody knows if an enigmatic man in a metal mask is a good US scientist or a Russian spy; several of Christopher Hodder-Williams's 1960s novels in which the protagonist's sanity is called into question as he makes curious discoveries; Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series (from 1965), in which the human race is apparently reincarnated en masse as a cold-blooded experiment; Richard Cowper's Breakthrough (1967), in which communication from outside seems like madness from inside; Frank Herbert's The Santaroga Barrier (October 1957-February 1958 Amazing; 1968), in which an entire community is cut off and apparently has its identity submerged (here what begins as horrifying is cleverly tilted so as to seem almost acceptable by the end); John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit (1969), in which paranoia is endemic and taken for granted in a Near-Future situation of racial hatred; Roger Zelazny's Amber series (from 1970) in which a family of quasi-superbeings plot constantly against one another, and real universes keep on turning out to be mere shadows of some further but unreachable reality; John T Sladek's The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970), which takes US paranoia as its prime target; and Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972), which parodies sf paranoia by passing itself off as a Sword-and-Sorcery novel written by Adolf Hitler.

Though most of this work in book form shows no special pattern, the films of the 1960s certainly did, and all this activity culminated in a second wave of paranoia books and films that emerged in the mid-1970s, and – in the cinema, at least – continues intermittently to the present day. This new paranoia boom was shaped differently from its 1950s predecessor; the earlier period produced paranoia stories about outside menaces that ultimately endangered the State; the later boom produced a more domestic version in which the menace came from within, and was very often the State itself – as in most of the films noted above – or even, in an inward claustrophobic spiral, the family itself, in the case of Richard Condon's Winter Kills (1974), a Fabulation about a political family closely resembling the Kennedys. The 1970s boom, though it built on conspiracy theories of the 1960s, was immediately attributable to the revelations following the 1972 break-in at Watergate which climaxed with President Nixon's resignation. It is hardly surprising that paranoid sf this time around emerged mostly (and perhaps justifiably) in stories that blended sf with Politics, as in the borderline sf film The Parallax View (1974) and the 1979 film of Condon's Winter Kills. Among the many more obviously science-fictional (though still political) paranoid film scenarios that followed are The Crazies (1973), Chosen Survivors (1974), Capricorn One (1977), The Fury (1978), The Boys from Brazil (1978), The China Syndrome (1979), Scanners (1980), Rollover (1981), Blue Thunder (1982), Endangered Species (1982), Firestarter (1984), Kamikaze (1986), The Blob (1988) and Brain Dead (1989), each of which involves a conspiracy, in most cases supported secretly by the apparatus of the State. The hoax television documentary Alternative 3 (1977), whose global conspiracy was both intended and admitted as a joke, still found many believers.

Curiously enough, conspiracy-theory material of this sort did not much permeate written genre sf in the 1970s, though it was very obvious in the sort of fabulations written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr and especially Thomas Pynchon, a tradition continued in the work of many others, including William T Vollmann in his You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon (1987). Within more obviously generic work, a kind of knowing paranoia characterized a series of novels by Barry N Malzberg (some listed under Psychology) which see Man as a puppet in some kind of enigmatic or indifferent cosmic game; but the conspiracy-theory work par excellence was Robert Shea's and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! (3 vols 1975), in which recent political history is explained in terms of a dazzlingly complex series of interlocking conspiracies by rival secret societies, some with histories going back to Atlantis. Algis Budrys's Michaelmas (August-September 1976 F&SF; exp 1977) comes out, rather worriedly, on the side of conspiracy by producing as hero the man who secretly manipulates human politics.

In the 1980s, paranoia in genre sf may have been slightly in abeyance, though it appeared in recurrent motifs of various sub-genres: the "shoot first, ask questions afterward" mentality of some Survivalist Fiction; the godlike manipulations of various Virtual Realities in novels by Jack Chalker and others; and some of the more sophisticated Space Operas, in which galactic history (including ours) turns out to have been warped by alien superbeings, as in Paul J McAuley's Eternal Light (1991). The most senior 1980s authors whose worlds are readable as paranoid are perhaps William Gibson and Orson Scott Card, but in rather different ways. Gibson's characteristically Canadian presentation is of struggling protagonists who often find themselves treated as puppets, as if free will may come to be illusory in a sufficiently complex world; Card's protagonists, who exist in a kinetic Universe pervaded by a sense of omnipotent presence, are – more typically of the USA – both manipulated and manipulative, the tool of greater forces or in the upshot godlike themselves. Card's Universe is intensely hierarchical, with his protagonists ranked high, but it is not always clear which rung of the ladder he believes the rest of us to be standing on; he may believe that we have free will if we stick to the rules.

It is difficult to generalize about paranoia in sf; clearly it is important and has led to some distinguished work. It does seem as if sf of the last few decades has matured and that, where sf once simply reflected paranoia, it is now more often written to analyse the very real paranoia that the writers know to exist in society. Western society has a cumbrous, bureaucratic power system; no wonder if the average individual feels at the mercy of forces he or she cannot even identify. In all paranoid sf the question of our free will is the fundamental one.

Schizophrenia is very much rarer in sf, though there is a small but persistent subgenre of tales about dual personality, its earliest classic being Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. The popular belief that schizophrenia is a synonym for split personality is incorrect; in clinical psychology schizophrenia is more complex and more common than that. However, it is the split-personality theme that has most attracted sf writers (see Psychology for further examples). An amusing variant can be found in Robert Sheckley's The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton (December 1958 Galaxy as "Join Now" as by Finn O'Donnevan; vt "The Humors" in Store of Infinity, coll 1960; exp 1978; vt Crompton Divided 1978), in which split personalities can be excised by psychic surgery and implanted into new bodies. The film Forbidden Planet (1956) features a self-controlled scientist out of touch with his own subconscious mind, the "id"; in a surprisingly successful post-Freudian variation on Stevenson's Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome, his secret passions become literally projected into the form of a ravening monster.

Where stories of Parasitism regularly have a subtext of paranoia, those of symbiosis often appear schizophrenic, at least in such tales as Brian Stableford's Hooded Swan series, where the symbiote literally inhabits the host's brain. (An earlier example is Algis Budrys's "Silent Brother" [February 1956 Astounding as by Paul Janvier].) Stableford is one of the few sf writers to use schizophrenia in the modern sense as an sf theme, in Man in a Cage (1975), where a schizophrenic is chosen to take part in a space project which might prove impossible for ordinary people. (Samuel R Delany had used a similar idea in "The Star Pit" [February 1967 Worlds of Tomorrow], but there the spacemen, though unbalanced, were not schizophrenic.)

Theodore Sturgeon wrote several strong (but sometimes perhaps glib) stories about schizophrenia, including "The Other Man" (September 1956 Galaxy), and "Who?" (March 1955 Galaxy; vt "Bulkhead" in A Way Home, coll 1955), which is about the deliberate splitting of an astronaut's personality to save him from insanity during a long space flight alone. And, of course, his gestalt creation in More Than Human (fixup 1953) consists of the joining together of individually maimed persons, each of whom (before joining) is like an inadequate, schizophrenic personality split off from some unknowable whole. Another story about the deliberate splitting of personality is Wyman Guin's interesting "Beyond Bedlam" (August 1951 Galaxy).

The most consistently evocative use of schizophrenic themes in sf, however, is in the work of Philip K Dick, notably in We Can Build You (November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum"; text restored 1972) and Martian Time-Slip (August-December 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow as "All We Marsmen"; exp 1964). Both use the word schizophrenia in the full clinical sense, and both treat schizophrenics with considerable empathy, though not necessarily sympathy; the latter is fascinating in its theorizing that the anomie of the schizophrenic may be to do with his or her subjective experience of time being radically removed from the normal; the desolated landscapes projected by (or perceived by) the schizoid mind are memorable. [PN/DRL]

see also: Monsters; Paranoia [game]; Supernatural Creatures; Urban Legends.

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