The Real Monsters

I had a cleverly creative epiphany. It started with the notion of having a regular Fleet & Federation playing group, a gaming club, and then I thought I could call it The Real Monsters, and then I realized that’s an awesome name that deserves not just to be a gentlepeople’s gaming club, but also a sci-fi metal band. (Sci-Fi metal was a thing in the 70s and 80s).

Then I wondered if I should rename Fleet & Federation itself to The Real Monsters. Problem Machine suggested TRM was too dark for what he remembered of the game. I dunno, the game gets pretty dark.* At the same time I wasn’t really trying to be dark with the new name.

Also, that would make this the fourth name for the game.**

The Real Monsters is a reference to the 20th century science fiction clichè, often delivered in an ironic twist at the end of a story. The idea was no matter what terrible things we might imagine done (to us) by inhuman intelligences, none would compare to what we do to ourselves, or to each other, or back to the aliens. We are the Real Monsters when comparing ourselves even to the Martians in War of the Worlds. (Of course, the Martians were, themselves, a metaphor for imperialist human colonials, too eager to massacre local tribes in order to displace them.)

The argument that we are monstrous is not without its merits. Humans are highly competitive. We are eager to exploit whatever advantages we can harness in order to dominate our environment and secure safety and well-being for ourselves and our kin. We’re willing to strip land and defile seas and massacre entire races and pervert cultures to do this. Worse yet, we don’t (probably can’t) recognize when we’ve done enough, when we are strong enough and safe enough and entertained enough. So we’ll keep stripping so long as there’s land to strip.

And with our large brains capable of navigating social complexity, we also have cleverness, and have recognized not only how to manipulate others to do our bidding, but to manipulate ourselves to overcome our more social (and anti-violent) instincts. That we can turn to murder and destruction and even cruelty in order to further feed this need. The human animal is the most social, most sympathetic and empathetic creature on the planet, and yet it is still capable of immense monstrosity.

And it’s a moral we seem to be incapable of hearing or comprehending. Large swathes of human population still believe that we are angels (or at least God’s children) and thus capable of behaving ourselves despite millennia of evidence to the contrary. We can be rational sometimes, usually under controlled circumstances. There are many circumstances in which we are irrational, and our advertising commercial enterprises and campaigning politicians capitalize on how predictably our reason fails us. (I imagine sometimes that we will truly learn to be civilized when we learn to manipulate each other for their own benefit or for community benefit rather than to sell them something. It makes me something of a dreamer, but I hope I’m not the only one.)

We pretend we are enlightened beings, and then we are completely unprepared when we are driven by lust or outrage or desperation to behave monstrously.

But then, we aren’t the real monsters. We naked apes have to get in line with all the other animals. Humans are the most socially complex of beasts, and we’re capable of amazing insight, but we are far from the most monstrous of them. Cruelty, slavery, rape, genocide, cannibalism…all the most heinous of crimes appear in behaviors across the animal kingdom. Wasp larvae eat caterpillars alive from the inside out, and instinctively avoid vital organs until last so as to keep the caterpillar alive and fresh. (And then we humans depend on this process, without which many pests would overpopulate and devour our crops.) Dolphin bulls gang rape cows, often drowning them in the process. Some species of ant enslave others. Male Lions habitually kill all the cubs in a pride (including their own). And male lions ousted from their own prides will form nomadic groups, death gangs which massacre other prides. The whole pride. So we humans, by comparison aren’t the monsters, we’re just another monster. We’re a monster of the week.

But this is not what I’m getting at when I use the phrase The Real Monsters, whether for my game, or my club or my band. We are the real monsters is an artifact of an explorative and introspective subgenre of science fiction of which Star Trek took part (having been inspired, itself from Forbidden Planet) in which Socratic examinations of alternative social norms were a common theme. Kirk often came to the conclusion that the American way was better, even at the cost of disrupting an odd but stable civilization. Picard was more inclined to spare damage to civilizations, even if it meant putting ship and crew, or his own life in peril. It’s a genre that, while it doesn’t always come to the conclusion that we are real monsters, it at least dares to ask To what extent are we monsters?

Star Trek isn’t going there anymore. Not officially.

Star Trek isn’t what it was, and Star Trek: Discovery is going to continue the new direction of space opera action as per the reboot and two sequels (of dubious reception). Star Trek is not going to be asking deep human questions anymore when there’s two-fisted Phaser battles to fight.

I suppose I could call it This Thing Called Love, but that ground is already way-overfarmed.

* I’d say F&F is darker than TOS or TNG but lighter than DS9 or Voyager. Part of my deconstruction is to look at the kinds of civilizations Kirk would intervene in without hesitation (Prime Directive be damned!), and consider how they would be actually tolerable. Not utopias, but still civilizations that function more or less. On the other hand, the Fleet and the Federation admin (heh!) are not as benign as the early Star Treks portrayed. Way more benign than the US circa 2010, though.

** The working title of F&F was Trek! based on the premise, what if Star Trek (TOS) was a reality show?. Then realizing that I wanted to give wide berth to any CBS / Paramount trademarks, I changed it. For a while it was Stars in SPACE! which was bland but silly. (Inspired by Pigs In SPACE! which is in turn a parody of Lost In Space). The name Fleet & Federation is a play on the age of sail notion of duty to king and country common in England. It also has the alliterative + ampersand quality that Dungeons & Dragons does, as did some of the derivative tabletop role-playing games that followed Tunnels & Trolls, Chivalry and Sorcery, Starships & Spacemen and so on.

Humans are not even the first species to change their own environment so drastically as to make conditions unlivable. African elephants populated and consumed the jungle so thoroughly as to cause much of the desertification across the continent. And the worse case scenario regarding modern climate change would play out similarly to the Great Permian Extinction (the greatest of all the terrestrial extinction events, known as The Great Dying). That was due to an overpopulation of methane producing microbes (probably not a single species). So we naked apes don’t even get to call ourselves the worst terrestrial threat ever…yet. And that’s a high bar I hope we don’t want to try for.

Edits Ugh. This was atrocious when I published it. Cleaned up more now. (Grammar, flow, clarification, better jokes) but I’m not even sure I’m done.

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