Hot (and cold) pursuit
Last week, courtesy of a Facebook acquaintance, I came across this image of someone’s Tumblr where some interesting conversation took place regarding humanity: http://imgur.com/gallery/hINj1xf
Now because that happens to be a reposted image, I have no idea what the original Tumblr page was. I don’t even know if it’s a page that discusses topics related to science fiction or if this represented a fascinating (but fleeting) tangent. Thus, I apologize profusely to anyone involved who I’m quoting here but can’t properly credit.
If you didn’t check out the link, the gist of it was a commenter by the handle of “bogleech” lamenting how humans are so often given short shrift when it comes to fantasy and science fiction, treated as “boring, default everyman species or even the weakest and dumbest.” S/he wants to see “a sci fi universe where we’re actually considered one of the more hideous and terrifying species.”
Now there are certainly science fiction settings out there that do just that, but the more interesting part of the conversation is everyone shifting out of the subjective viewpoint and bringing up all the ways in which your bog standard human actually does represent a fairly terrifying beast, even to the sorts of animals we tend to fear (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!)… even without the benefits of modern technology.
It makes sense if you think about it… we didn’t always have guns and cars, or even domesticated riding animals. We must have had something going for us, right? The human brain’s ability to reason is usually put up as the answer, and it’s a good one, but this particular response was also quite interesting from a pure physical perspective:
“More seriously, humans do have a number of advantages even among Terrestrial life. Our endurance, shock resistance, and ability to recover from injury is absurdly high compared to almost any other animal. We often use the phrase “healthy as a horse” to connote heartiness – but compared to a human, a horse is as fragile as spun glass. There’s mounting evidence that our primitive ancestors would hunt large prey simply by following it at a walking pace, without sleep or rest, until it died of exhaustion; it’s called pursuit predation. Basically, we’re the Terminator… Our strength and speed is nothing to write home about, but we don’t need to overpower or outrun you. We just need to outlast you – and by any other species’ standards, we just plain don’t get tired.”
Right in the middle of all this is a concept I hadn’t really come across before: pursuit predation. That’s a pretty terrifying thought, isn’t it? A tireless hunter that will find you anywhere you go, and never seems to sleep? I mean, anyone who’s seen The Terminator knows it is. Hell, anyone who watched the old Pepe Le Pew cartoons saw the same concept played for laughs, but the cat he pursued was never laughing.
But the Terminator was out purely to kill, and Le Pew’s ultimate goal was (at least his idea of) love. When ancient man picked up his spear and started trotting after a gazelle, his motive tended to be dinner.
So say you’re that gazelle. This weird two-legged thing after you… it’s so slow. I mean, you outrun cheetas on a daily basis, and this joke of a creature thinks it can catch you? In seconds flat, you’ve left it in the dust. A bit winded after your exertions, you stop to rest.
And then, suddenly, it shows up again. And you run again.
But it just. Keeps. Coming.
Implacable. Seemingly tireless. Hungry. More often than not, there be an entire swarm of them closing in. And when they catch you, they will surround you, tear you to shreds and feed.
If animals had the concept of a zombie apocalypse, ancient man would have easily fit the bill. It gets even funkier when you consider that some recent research indicates ancient man’s arrival in their territory may have represented an extinction event for many species.
I believe one of man’s primal fears (that has passed down to us) is not just fear of sharp teeth or fear of the dark, but a more complicated fear of being rendered obsolete. That someone or something out there will prove to be better and more efficient at an aspect of the world we considered ourselves masters of. The spectre of jealousy may, in fact, be rooted in this fear, as we find our guts turning over with unease at the thought that someone has talents or possessions we view as superior to our own.
But beyond that, consider how many monster movies revolve around the idea of a creature that is not only stronger, faster, and bigger than us, but somehow smarter than us as well. Our one historical (and prehistorical) trump card, gone. Every time we hear about a new advance in robotics or genetic engineering, our brains start concocting apocalyptic scenarios where we create something capable of replacing us, because it becomes everything we are except moreso. Evolutionarily speaking, we no longer have a niche to fill, and must give way to the superior species.
Even within our own human tribes, this sort of thing happens all the time. I think of how, in the American viewpoint of the 1980s, the super-efficient, tireless population of Japan were going to take over everything. They had grabbed all of our technology and not only replicated it, but were doing it better. For God(and Apple Pie)’s sake, they were doing Capitalism (which I sometimes still have a feeling a good portion of my countrymen think we invented) better! I don’t think it was until the Nikkei stock market crash in 1990 before the zeitgeist calmed down and admitted that, okay, maybe envisioning a society stuffed full of ruthless economic superpredators wasn’t all that rational after all.
Not in the real world, anyhow. In science fiction and fantasy we get to play with all sorts of “what-if” scenarios, and in all my rambling, I don’t want to forget the shambling. Pursuit predation is a real thing, and I believe it’s a core element of why slow zombies can be just as frightening as the more modern runners and leapers. It’s yet another dark mirror of ourselves. This is how we once hunted, and now, something has come along that is hunting us in the same way, and doing so more implacably, more tirelessly, and more hungrily than we ever could. Regardless of whether they catch us in the short run, they have supplanted us in our niche, and because of that we would have that uneasy feeling that we’re staring down the barrel of our extinction.