Humans are capable of immense greatness and largeness of spirit — but we can also be total horrible bastards, sometimes. And science fiction is full of stories where we terrorize and mistreat innocent creatures. Here are the 10 best stories where humans are the villains.
Top image: The Day The Earth Stood Still.
1) The Things by Peter Watts
In this short story, Peter Watts retells Peter Campbell’s “Who Goes There” (which was made into John Carpenter’s The Thing) from the perspective of the alien. We see the alien become the people who discovered it, we learn its tragic backstory, and feel its sadness when it sees its wrecked ship. This creature doesn’t understand humans, or their instinct towards violence. At one point in the story it wonders “Why even dig me up? Why carve me from the ice, carry me all that way across the wastes, bring me back to life only to attack me the moment I awoke? If eradication was the goal, why not just kill me where I lay?”
The alien in this story is as alien as it could possibly be, in a story written by a human. It doesn’t think like a human, and it is horrified by the human body and brain. By reframing a familiar story Watts forces us to relate to the alien, the former antagonist, and see the humans as villains. It’s interesting to see the tables turned. It reminds us that there is more than one side to all stories, and that you might be wrong about who the “good” and “bad” guys are.
2) Publicity Campaign by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke published this 1953 short story in the London Evening News, and it puts a darkly funny spin on the idea of humans as villains. The story begins with a group of Hollywood executives discussing their newest alien horror movie. The effects are better than ever, and the aliens more frightening than even War of the Worlds. (“But of course George Pal didn’t have 3D.”) They plot out an elaborate publicity campaign, and within a few months everyone on Earth is aware of the frightening aliens in the movie. From there the story shifts to Prince Zervashni, a peaceful alien on a mission to contact Earth. After months of being bombarded with anti-alien propaganda in the form of this movie, the humans assume the worst. They attack the landing party, overwhelming them with armed crowds. The Prince feels he has no choice, and minutes later the earth is “neatly disinfected” and human-free.
In only a few short pages, Clarke shows us the darkness of humanity, and then proceeds to wipe us out. It’s clear that most worlds Prince Zervashni explores are peaceful, and we're just a terrible exception.
3) District 9
This extended Apartheid metaphor shows us just how horribly first contact with an alien race could go, if the aliens were vulnerable in and in need of shelter.
Alien refugees, referred to as Prawns, are forced into internment camps outside the city. We learn that the aliens didn't want to come to Earth, and humans have trapped them with our greed and ignorance. Over and over, we see humans behaving cruel, violent, or turning a blind eye to the suffering going on in the camps. Even Wikus, who helps the aliens more than any other human, acts only out of self interest. The viewer knows that if he wasn’t literally turning into an alien, he would still be working to exploit them. When you see humans gleefully destroying the aliens' eggs, forcing them from their homes, and forcing Wikus to use the alien technology, it isn’t hard to view the human race as the movie's villains.
4) The Second Renaissance
This two-part short film was included in the Animatrix DVDs, and it changes everything. Turns out, the machines in The Matrix might not be quite the evil overlords you thought… at least not at the beginning. In The Second Renaissance, a two part short film set approximately 200 years before The Matrix, we see the story of the fall of humanity and the rise of the machines. It shows humans' oppression of the machines and the beginning of the war between them and humanity. We see machines shot, crushed by tanks, and viscously attacked with sledgehammers. Piles of machines are shoveled into pits reminiscent of mass graves.
Even after these brutal attacks, the machines send ambassadors on peaceful terms, and are turned away. In an attempt to win the war, humans come up with a “final solution” which involved destroying the sky. In humanity'sfinal stand against the machines they can be heard chanting “kill ‘em all, kill ‘em all” in mindless bloodlust.
The filmmakers purposely use images referencing human tragedies throughout history including the Holocaust and Tiananmen Square to make us sympathize with the downtrodden machines.
5) Gears of War
There are countless forum posts all over the internet full of people debating the backstory of this tactical shooter game series, and whether the character you play throughout the games, Marcus Fenix of the COG, is in fact a villain. Whatever you believe, there are some facts within the game that few people seem to disagree with: The humans began the war by drilling into the Locust home underground, and when we thought we were losing the war, we wiped out over 90% of Sera’s surface. The Locust Horde were defending their land, and by the end of Gears of War 3, COG have committed genocide.
By playing as COG and slowly seeing what they are doing on Sera, you experience the events of the war in a unique way, by being one of the killers. You are the one to press the trigger against the Locust Horde. This arguably puts the player in the shoes of the villains more than a short story, movie, or novel.
6) The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
This novel explores the relationship between the natives of the planet Athshe and the humans from Earth who are attempting to colonize the planet and exploit its natural resources. The Terrans enslave the small, green, furry natives and treat them more like animals than people, despite their proven intelligence and advanced social structures.
We see the Terrans primarily from two points of view, Captain Davidson and Raj Lyubov. Davidson is a small minded, violent man who begins the war after he rapes and kills an important Athshean’s wife. Lyubov is an anthropologist, and one of the few Terrans who take the time to understand the Athsheans.
Through Davidson and Lyubov’s interactions with other Terrans we see the selfish, violent nature of the humans on the planet. They refer to the Athsheans by the slur “creechies” while trying to hide their mistreatment of them from other humanoid races. When Lyubov protests one man tells him, “You know the people you’re studying are going to get plowed under, and probably wiped out. It’s the way things are. It’s human nature, and you must know you can’t change that.”
7) E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Poor E.T. He just wants to play dress up, get drunk and snarf Reese's Pieces while he figures out a way to Speak-n-Spell himself a ride home. But the government is determined to dissect him and find out how to reverse-engineer that glowing finger thing.
8) The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
In this tragic war story, humans believe that we've been attacked by aliens, so we send out ships to destroy the Tauran ships, and massacre their people. We don't bother to try and communicate with the Taurans for years, until we finally develop our own clones who can talk to the Taurans — and then we find out that we were the aggressor in the war.
Something similar plays out in Ender's Game and the Orphan's War series by Robert Buettner.
9) The Day The Earth Stood Still
Klaatu comes to Earth in peace, and pretty much from the beginning he's met with distrust and preemptive violence. As Klaatu wryly observes at one point, "I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it." Too bad our people haven't. And in the end, Klaatu gives the intractably violent human race an ultimatum: "Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."
10) Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
The Planet of the Apes series builds up a vision of a future where humans have devolved and are oppressed by super-intelligent apes. But then, just like the Animatrix, the series turns things around and shows what we did to deserve such a fate. Poor Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo flee to present-day Earth and discover first-hand quite how xenophobic and violent humans could be. The three intelligent apes wind up paying the ultimate price — and then in the next movie, we see how humans systematically enslave the next generation of intelligent apes — before they finally rise up.
Additional reporting by Dan Lee and Chris Steffen