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Zombies and robots ‘invade’ the news and government

A zombie costumed crowd "pushes" against a wrought iron fence.
A zombie costumed crowd "pushes" against a wrought iron fence.
Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Science fiction is becoming science fact even to the point of involving the undead! Zombies and apocalyptic events have become so popular, exemplified in AMC’s hit TV series “The Walking Dead”, that they are subjects of discussion in our own news media and government and so are no longer exclusively the things of geek culture or escapist entertainment. Last week, news showed headlines of the Pentagon’s plan in dealing with a zombie apocalypse and the U.N.’s discussion of a possible robot apocalypse.

Since Tuesday of last week, major news sources have been featuring headlines on the Pentagon’s plan to stop a zombie apocalypse. CNN, NBCNews and “Time Magazine”’s websites are among the many sources that covered the Pentagon’s zombie survival plan. According to “Foreign Policy”, the plan is documented in an unclassified file that is “buried on the military’s secret computer network. . . .” The document is titled "CONPLAN 8888" in which it actually states that it was not created “as a joke.” Instead the document explains that the plan was created as a training strategy for soldiers and uses the fictional scenario of a zombie invasion so the general public could not mistake it as a plan for a real catastrophic event such as an invasion from a foreign country. This means of preventing a mass panic would seem not to be a 100% guarantee, though: in 1938 Orson Wells’ radio dramatization of “The War of the Worlds” fooled a number of people who tuned in late to it (even though that number has been debated). But at least news media such as the ones listed above clearly indicates that the scenario is fictional, so we’ll probably be okay.

The same week that news reported the Pentagon’s zombie attack plan, displayed the headline that consisted of the phrase “ . . . a Robocalypse May Be Coming” which is a play on the words “robot” and “apocalypse”. The issue was the UN’s discussion of preventing lethal robots, such as military drones, from causing indiscriminate and unnecessary deaths. “The Wall Street Journal” carried a headline on their website reading “It’s Judgment Day for Killer Robots at the United Nations” playing on the title of the second “Terminator” movie in which “Judgment Day” already refers to the apocalypse of the last book of the Bible.

Both of these issues occurring in the same week, at least as far as media’s reporting of it goes, may be too much of perfect timing to be a coincidence. It’s showing us that science fiction and fantasy culture is effecting real life issues and the way news media and government perceive them. Bearing in mind that Mary Shelley’s classic novel “Frankenstein”--which inspired numerous movies and permeates pop culture in all mediums--is set in Geneva Switzerland, could it be that coincidental that the talks of preventing killer robot crises were held in the UN’s Geneva headquarters? Remember that Frankenstein’s monster in many ways both resembles a robot as well as a zombie: a robot because he’s put together by Dr. Frankenstein himself and so artificially made, a zombie because he’s made from the parts of human corpses.

Along with the zombie craze and science fiction’s long time popularity with robots, interest in an apocalypse over the years has also influenced the two above issues. The interest really goes as far back as the Bible (at least as far as western culture goes) in which in the last book of the New Testament “The Apocalypse”, (also known as “The Book of Revelation”) prophesied the end of the world as we know it caused by God’s wrath over people’s sins. However, the book concludes by describing the beginning of a new world of heavenly qualities. Science fiction and fantasy have utilized this theme of apocalypse from the book especially because of the book’s science fictional and fantastic elements. But the two genres have utilized the world destruction aspect of the theme much more than the world renewal one. Stories of societies surviving in a post nuclear world (a world that has been destroyed by nuclear energy) as well as stories of epic plagues, including zombie attacks, have been inspired by the world destruction part of the apocalyptic theme.

On a more religious level, people have been concerned about what would happen if prophecies of world destruction were correct such as the ones in the Bible’s “Apocalypse” or ones predicted by the Mayan calendar which was a major trend in 2012. At the turn of the century, Christian fundamentalists applied the biblical apocalypse to the anticipated millennium bug. Only last month did they do the same to the blood red moon caused by the lunar eclipse.

On the level of entertainment, the idea of an apocalypse has permeated pop culture at least as far back as “Walking Dead”’s predecessor, George A. Romero’s 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead”. Apocalyptic themes are seen in many of our books. Not only are they in fiction but nonfiction as well. A zombie apocalypse is the subject of Max Brooks best-selling nonfiction parody, “The Zombie Survival Guide”, that has played a major role in sparking the zombie craze of the last 10 years. In addition to this, there have been comic books with zombie apocalypse storylines like the one that “The Walking Dead” TV series is based on.

Even the most comical of comic book characters such as the Archies have recently been depicted as zombies, even to the point of gore exploitation. There has been an outburst of games of all forms with zombie themes and storylines: video games, board games; even live role playing games (RPGs) where people act and even dress the part of the living dead.

Our culture has even gone as far as putting on zombie themed non-gaming events. Within the last decade, there have been zombie themed pub crawls and even zombie walk-a-thons and marathons. So even athletics have jumped into the zombie craze. Our own city of Sacramento has had several of these events many of which are put on by the local zombie club.

Zombies and robots are modern day myths that represent our own fears and concerns about a chaotic world of uncertainty. And with problems such as war, crime and advancements in technology--especially computers--causing such worries and concerns to rise, both the undead and killer robots are perfect symbols for these fears and the very things that cause them. Along with these symbols and the concerns they embody is the concept of an apocalypse.

With zombies, robots and the apocalypse being myths that have permeated as well as pronounced themselves in our pop culture at all levels, it shouldn’t be too surprising that our own government and news media are using these metaphors to more easily and meaningfully communicate issues as serious as war, violence and the future of the technology that contributes to these. The late Joseph Campbell himself says in Part One, Chapter Three of his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” that symbols such as metaphors are a means of understanding that which is otherwise overwhelming. And even though zombies, robots and apocalyptic futures are no longer merely symbols or subjects of geek culture, the fact that that culture is becoming more mainstream as evidenced by today’s science fiction and fantasy programming dominating television, and even by sitcoms such as “The Big Bang Theory”, shows how much influence geeks have had on news media and government issues.

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