the Bible as science fiction: suggested upgrades for the Ten Plagues of Egypt
December 02, 2014
Two thousand years from now, when most of the world's denizens are devout Scientologists, some reckless agnostic may have the temerity to wander in to the Great Temple of L Ron Hubbard in San Francisco with a copy of one of the Prophet's banned pre-Dianetics works – take, for example Indigestible Titan – and say, “Hey, did any of you know the sage was actually a science fiction writer?”
Ok course, he'd be stoned to death by a High Priest cloned from John Travolta's beard trimmings, but what schisms and generations-long wars might that revelation trigger? Would there be a “Name of the Rose” style series of murders to hide the offending book and silence anyone who discovered the truth?
But religion is, by and large, ancient science fiction and fantasy: gods, monsters, people living to absurd old ages and not going senile, entire cities going up in smoke. Forget New York City being ripped apart by giant reptiles, blasted by aliens or smashed up by asteroids: Sodom and Gomorrah did all that, three thousand years ago.
This might explain why Biblical stories are getting the big Hollywood movies treatment right now, such as Darren Aronofsky's “Noah” and Ridley Scott's new blockbuster “Exodus.” People aren't getting more religious, they're just looking for good myths to mine, and Marvel is running out of franchise characters. That might also explain Charlton Heston's smooth transition in the 1970s from Moses and Ben-Hur to Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and the Omega Man.
The great thing about religious myths is that they resonate within modern cultures, even ones that aren't particularly religious, because they are so deeply ingrained in the cultural narrative already. Look at Neil Gaiman's best-seller “American Gods,” John Fowles “The Magus” or Tom Robbins' “Jitterbug Perfume.” You can have fun with gods, especially ones that are a distant echo of us: gods are such a rich bag of tricks for any story-teller that the trend is bound to continue. The follow-up to Cronix, in which a murderous, adolescent deity emerges, will have plenty of that: thinking up a whole religious cult around a psychotic god was a hell of a lot of fun.
The Bible itself offers rich pickings. Take the plagues in Egypt: okay, not exactly Outbreak or World War Z, and I think the Torah scribes may have missed a trick here. I haven't seen Ridley Scott's forthcoming Exodus yet, which promises “a terrifying cycle of deadly plagues,” but I hope he improves on the original version.
The first plague, “water into blood” is fine as a warm-up, a bit creepy and it doesn't decimate the population who have nine more plagues to get through. “Frogs” – okay, original idea, but unlikely to freak anyone out. “Lice” – more annoying than you'd think, and could drive you crazy in a world without disinfectant, but still not the stuff of your worst nightmares. You might as well go with noisy neighbours. “Wild animals, possibly flies,” (according to Wikipedia, which is a quicker read than the Book Of Exodus) – this is more promising, very Amityville and pretty gross in general. Again, a good appetiser for the serious stuff to come. “Diseased livestock”: biological warfare, quite imaginative, and very serious in an era without vets or freezers: probably wouldn't resonate well with a modern, animal-loving audience though. “Boils” is cinematic and good for the teenage gross-out market. “Thunderstorm and hail” – sorry, boring. Next. “Locusts” – insect clouds are good, all those little legs and mandibles creeping and scratching across your body and of course, back in the day they'd eat all your crops and you'd starve, so way more serious than it sounds. But not at number eight. I'd say replace the frogs with this one. “Darkness” -- very good, but again, it should come earlier because then the people know they'll have to get through the terrifying later visitations without being able to see exactly what's lurking out there, waiting for them. “Death of the firstborn” – this is pretty powerful, not to mention downright cruel, but I think it lacks narrative drive because you know in advance who's going to get whacked.
Personally, I'd have gone something like this: water into blood is fine as an opener. Then darkness, because it's always primevally scary when the lights go out. But not total darkness, because you want people to be freaked out rather than just bumping into things. Replace locusts with cockroaches, and flies with ravenous rats, in a nod to James Herbert; that way people start getting bitten and scared, maybe even a few fatalities.
Diseased livestock is just depressing, so replace that with animals that turn on their masters, as though controlled by some mysterious, vengeful spirit. Fluffy the dog turns into Cujo, and cattle stampede through the city centre, causing mayhem. I'd keep boils, just for the yuck factor.
We're getting close to the climax now, so God has to pull out the stops. I'd go with the risen dead as number seven – not quite zombies, but more to get people freaked out and up on their rooftops, not knowing what's going on with the shambling corpses in the streets. Then eight I'd have some Egyptian gods gone crazy, parasited by the one true God, just to show the Egyptians who's boss: a crazed Anubis the jackal eating his own priests in Karnak, taking out a key layer of the ruling classes: Sobek the crocodile god kicking down doors and taking no prisoners. Terrorist gods, slaves to the Almighty's will.
Nine, I'd finally go with zombies: have the risen dead, who have been shambling around the streets until now, suddenly start hunting down the first born – that way, the first born might survive but dad could get chomped or hacked to death by undead grandma in the process of saving him. Ten – okay, I may have peaked too early with zombies, but then if I have God's powers, why not a Roland Emmerich, 2012-style seismic apocalypse where Pharaoh, zombies and all go plunging down to the depths as Egypt cracks open and an entire civilization is swallowed up? Pyramids crumble as mummified Pharaohs and their sacrificed retainers burst out their tombs and attack terrified survivors feeling into the desert, temples come crashing down on Anubis as he is feasting on the cadaver of his High Priest, and meanwhile, the Israelites have snuck out to Sinai, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, which is making ominous rumbling sounds and glowing with radioactive excitement, because you know God's getting a kick out this.
Hollywood has had a go at this before, in Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments and Charlton Heston's blockbusters in the 1950s. But with modern cinematic effects, maybe bi-sci-fi's moment has come.