Thursday, August 30, 2007

Changing into Aliens

The latest vampire novel I've read is a YA book, MARKED, by the mother-daughter team of P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast. In this universe, vampyres (as it's spelled) are openly known to exist. Their representatives place the Mark on the foreheads of fledglings, teenagers destined to become vampyres—if they survive the Change, which spans several years. The young heroine, once Marked, has to enroll in a boarding academy for fledglings. This kind of vampirism is not spread by biting. A quasi-scientific explanation postulates that in a small percentage of adolescents, the hormonal surges of puberty trigger a change in strands of "junk DNA," initiating the person's transformation. This book offers an imaginative variation on the familiar vampire fiction conventions. I strongly recommend it.

The "alien" aspect I see in this story is the process of turning into something no longer completely human. The heroine undergoes mystical experiences and finds herself possessed by strange urges, while grappling with new powers and vulnerabilities as well as adjusting to a new environment. The ordeal of becoming a creature one no longer recognizes, of course, befalls every adolescent to some degree. We may not transform as radically as caterpillars into butterflies, but we still struggle with the changes that come over us at that stage of life. It's been pointed out that a major appeal of the movie I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF is that it symbolically represents something that happens to all teenage boys. A similar point is made in its usual inimitably witty fashion by a BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER episode in which Xander gets involved with a gang who've been possessed by hyena spirits. When Buffy tries to describe Xander's alarming behavioral aberrations to Giles, Giles replies with something like, "He's turned into a teenage boy. Obviously, you'll have to kill him." I sometimes refer to our grown sons' adolescent years as “turning into a werewolf,” the period when a formerly pleasant, cooperative child becomes an almost unrecognizable creature. In Jacqueline's Sime-Gen universe, young Simes literally transform into alien-looking creatures by sprouting tentacles and gaining strange new powers (strange in the eyes of Gens, anyway).

In creating alien protagonists, recalling the confusion of our teenage years may help us get inside the minds of our characters. After all, the term “alienation” is often applied to the turmoil many adolescents go through (in our culture, at least—see THE CASE AGAINST ADOLESCENCE, which I recently discussed, for an alternate view). And for those of us who've long since attained adulthood or even middle age (or beyond), today's youth may seem to inhabit a different realm, a world of the future with technology and dialects we have to learn as foreign customs and second languages. Bridging that gap may offer clues about how it would feel to communicate with aliens.


  1. I should have also mentioned Suzy McKee Charnas' award-winning story "Boobs," a gender reversal of I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. Her adolescent girl narrator, instead of menstruating when she reaches puberty, periodically turns into a wolf. She uses her new power to get back at the bully who has made her life miserable at school.

  2. I've never been interested in vampires or werewolves at all. So, I'll just take your word for it.

    I think the key to understanding teenagers and aliens is the same as understanding newborn babies. Teenagers really haven't changed. They're human beings making the transition into adulthood. That's all. Teens have the same emotional needs senior citizens and newborn babies do - respect and affection. The only difference is in how those needs are met. Or not.

    For example, respect a newborn baby and you will quickly learn whether she hates the television. Turn it off, swaddle her, place her in a position she likes, and she's happy. The fire alarm frightens her. You can tell she's frightened not simply because she cries, but also because her arms and legs fling out in the startle reflex. Her body stiffens. Her face reddens. Snuggling fulfills the affection need which communicates that she is safe.

    Teenagers and all other human beings are the same way. I would imagine aliens are too. At least, they are in the SCD Universe.