We Are All Bug-Eyed Monsters

BEMBug-eyed monsters were popular in the early days of science fiction with their bulging eyes, groping tentacles and dripping ichor. Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft (among other writers) built entire careers on the endless confrontation between man and monster.

No one takes bug-eyed monsters seriously anymore. They can only be mocked or evoked in deprecation. It was more fun, however, in the old days when BEMs were featured prominently on the covers of Astounding Stories, Weird Tales and other sensational pulp magazines. That’s what the editors of this short story collection think. And I agree.

Brian Aldiss once said that science fiction was the image of the unspeakable human heart given shape as the grotesque other. And if that’s the case, then bug-eyed monsters are “the unassimilable vision of ourselves, safely distanced, invariably rejected.” As such, they’ve been an important subtextual figure of science fiction from the very beginning.

Take for example “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim. It’s a story about an alien creature living among us in plain sight. He looks like everyone else (sort of) but he’s a loner who never fits in. Like a moth that looks like a wasp or a caterpillar that looks like an armored beetle, the creature in Wollheim’s story uses camouflage to assimilate and survive. “Even here, in the heart of the largest city in the world in swarming New York,” says the author, “the eccentric and the odd may exist unhindered.” In other words, we are all bug-eyed monsters—alone and unloved.

“The Last One Left,” by co-editors Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, is even more direct. In their story an alien invasion is taking place, and no one seems to notice—no pandemonium in the streets, no newspaper articles, no nothing. The BEMs have arrived and they’re slowly taking over the planet. But whatever. Obviously, the aliens, with their mass hypnosis and “rolicular modal control,” are superior to humans in every way. What can we do but shrug our shoulders in defeat?

These two stories, as good as they may be, are indicative of the entire collection. This isn’t a book for nostalgic readers looking for hideous creatures, Flash Gordon-like heroes, and women in brass brassieres. Every author from Damon Knight (“Stranger Station”) to Isaac Asimov (“Hostess”) is trying to deconstruct the sub-genre in their own particular way. Are they successful? Probably not. You can almost see the writers (especially Poul Anderson and Robert Bloch) smirking as they pound away at their clackity typewriters.

But I would recommend checking out Bug-Eyed Monsters nonetheless. Part of understanding what we are and where we are going is understanding where we’ve been. In this way the past always inspires the future. Says the editors: “The bug-eyed monster is where science fiction has been—and in its own way it wasn’t such a bad place to be.”

[Bug-Eyed Monsters / Edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg / First Printing: 1980 / ISBN: 0156147890]