What Are the Odds of a Protagonist Surviving an Alien Invasion Novel?

By on 7:52 PM

Not great, but not too bad all things considered.

No matter how morally gray, long, short or ‘dark side of humanity’ any given alien invasion novel is, there’s always going to be some central good guy. This person will always be in the thick of things – whether it’s the survival of a small group or a full-fledged war – so the danger level is both high and constant. But he’s actually fairly safe, because most stories depend on the protagonist to keep going and no one likes to see the hero die unless it’s in some grand sacrificial finale.

The majority of alien invasion novels can fall into loosely organized categories based on the protagonist’s chances of survival. Here’s what a few of those categories are and some warning signs for if you find yourself in a deadly extraterrestrial situation and think you just might be a protagonist.

Alien Invasion Novel Category #1: Everybody Dies

I tend to think that this is the more realistic type of alien invasion novel. If intelligent aliens are capable of developing technology to reach us, they’re definitely capable of completely destroying or dominating us. If The War of the Worlds hadn’t killed off Martians and red weed in the lamest way possible, this is the sort of situation everyone in the book would have faced: the slow deaths of pockets of survivors due to direct annihilation, lack of resources, or death by an aggressive foraging survivor (animal or human). Kind of like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach but less Cold War-esque radiation and more hostile takeover.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (read my review here) is probably the most famous (and most unique) example of all humans dying. It falls into this category because of two ‘everybody dies’ patterns. One, the story takes place over about one hundred years, and each of the protagonists are adults. The first dies of old age, the second commits suicide with the majority of the human race, and the last human is dissolved with the planet. This is a fairly neat technique, as the story moves along through major character deaths; Orson Scott Card did the same thing in his novel via short stories Capitol, which took place over thousands of years.

Two, like its says in the name of this category, everybody dies. The human children transform into something… other. The remaining humans collectively kill themselves and all other life on earth ends when the once-human children destroy Earth. All humans, not to mention all terrestrial species are killed.

So, how can you tell if you’re in this sort of situation? If increasingly large numbers of people are dying or if you’re confronted with an enemy that both wants to kill everyone and can kill everyone, it’s probably best to enjoy life while you still can. If you’re in charge of the military but haven’t heard of any secret and coincidentally perfect divisions that might save humanity, then you’re probably not in a novel with a happy ending.

Yes, Independence Day is a movie that shouldn’t have had a happy ending, and most people acknowledge that it was crap.

So, if you’re dealing with an overwhelmingly superior alien enemy, huge numbers of people keep dying, and you’re not that special or well-informed, you might not be the protagonist. But chances are everyone’s going to die, so it’s probably not that important.

Alien Invasion Novel Category #2: The Protagonist is Too Important to Die

If you’re interested in survival, then this is the alien invasion novel type for you. But the protagonists in these stories generally have hard lives nonetheless: they usually have to kill or decide who’s going to die, they lose their friends and family, and, due to their being a protagonist in a sort of novel that’s exciting and gritty, are never left in peace for long.

The War of the Worlds, despite what it maybe should have been, falls into this category. The narrator has no marketable survival skills, can be a bit of a bombastic moron at times, and in general isn’t a good candidate for living through an apocalypse in reality. But he was a narrator in a traditionally narrated novel, so he gets to live.

However, it’s not just luck that’ll do it. You have to be specifically suited for the narrator position. To be that, you need to have a unique perspective on the alien invasion, be extremely knowledgable of what’s going on (whether your individual circumstances or the situation more generally), and have some position of power or impact. You also can’t be an entirely repulsive human being, or everyone’s going to be hoping you die.

Some protagonists legitimately deserve their protagonist spots, like Ender in Ender’s Game. He’s too important to die, seeing as how he’s being trained to fight in a pretty large-scale war, and he actually deserves to be important.

As a protagonist, you’re also more likely to survive if you’re an extremely talented leader of a community. As a whole, alien invasion apocalypses and nuclear radiation apocalypses share modern roots in the Cold War, and kind of act the same way. So I’m going to use Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon to describe this point. The novel centers around a guy who’s effectively sheriff of a small Florida community that managed to evade the nuclear bombs. Things would go the hell for the survivors without his skills, common sense, leadership, and general toughness, so he can’t very well be killed off. He’s just too important to die.

But I can’t very well leave off Bruce Coville and all the kiddie alien invasion novels, either. His most famous alien series, My Teacher is an Alien, focuses on the ‘they’re watching to see if they should destroy us or welcome us into an intergalactic society’ theme. Ultimately, a group of preteens have to find enough ‘good’ in the human race for aliens to let us all live; if anyone kills the protagonist kid, our species would die, so he really is just too important.

Plus, they’re kids’ books – there’s hardly going to be a dark kill-fest.

Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to figure out if you’re a protagonist in this sort of situation. Are aliens invading (or are about to do so)? Are you important and irreplaceable? Is it supremely unlikely for you to be able to make some sort of sacrifice that saves everyone?

Then you’re good. Of course, if you’re the protagonist in practically any alien invasion book, you’re good for at least a little while, because that’s how books work.

But, speaking of sacrifices…

Alien Invasion Novel Category #3: The Protagonist is a Sacrifice

This is the big exception to the general tendency for protagonists to survive, and it doesn’t happen that often.

But every once in a while, some situation comes up where only the primary good guy’s death can save people and our hero, being said primary good guy, accepts this. Like in 30 Days of Night (and I can't believe I'm even using this as an example), when Evan the sheriff turns himself into a vampire, runs off the other vampires terrorizing his town, and then commits suicide via sunrise. This is hopefully more motivated by his desire to not be a homicidal vampire than by his desire to keep his promise of watching the sunrise with his estranged wife, and definitely counts as a hero’s sacrifice.

When you inject yourself with vampire blood, outside of a Twilight novel, your life is over.

As far as I can tell, though, the sacrificial protagonist in alien invasion novels is pretty rare, and not just because alien invasion novels themselves are pretty rare. Sure there’s Rorschach in Watchmen (though Rorschach was only kind of a protagonist, Watchmen is not really an alien invasion [graphic] novel, and he was killed to keep the origins of a Cold War-ending fake extraterrestrial secret more than to ward off an alien attack). There's also the death of protagonist #3 in Childhood’s End. As a whole, there’s not too much a protagonist can do to sacrifice himself in an alien invasion novel that means that much – heroes are at their best when they keep leading, fighiting or narrating as the occasion calls for. Dramatic sidekicks are the ones who sacrifice themselves or distract alien forces at key moments.

Like the crazy guy on Independence Day. Someone in that final battle had to die, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Jeff Goldblum or Will Smith.

In a more serious Armageddon-like movie, there are certain end-game functions a protagonist can serve. If you’re some sort of a protagonist in an alien – or asteroid – situation and the action-packed end-game is at hand, your death might help people survive. Not the death itself, but by you doing something only you can do in a situation you can’t hope to extract yourself from. Because only Bruce Willis can simultaneously nuke a rock and save his daughter's love interest.

However, if there’s a long-term struggle, sacrifices help no one. If the invasion is over and you’re leading a small pocket of resistance or survivors, your function is to stay alive to keep them alive – you’re a protagonist in category #2, not category #3.

Sorry: you’re doomed to survive, and probably doomed to lose severely.

Alien Invasion Novel category #4: The Aliens Are the protagonists

This is a wonky kind of category. In this sort of alien invasion novel, either aliens – like Martians, Keanu Reeves, or Ford Prefect – are the protagonists when they come to Earth, or humans are the invading aliens on another planet. And in this game, anything can happen to the protagonist.

Sometimes, like in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, there isn’t really a protagonist beyond a general stream of humanity. This series of vignettes focuses on the themes of new frontiers, loneliness, and the ghosts of lost civilizations and, after the first few bits and before the last few bits, people aren’t surviving against anything so much as just living, albeit on Mars.

In Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl’s, again, the story focuses on a people’s relation to space and how we deal with scientific progress. There’s no real enemy besides ourselves.

(That is somewhat especially true in the case of The Day the Earth Stood Still, since the alien emphasized the danger we humans are to ourselves.)

This odd focus on aliens as protagonists and humans as aliens rarely centers on violent invasions. Instead they are more existentialist and philosophical. They ask questions about our place in the universe, or the place of someone else (several others) in the universe. And if you’re the protagonist, the odds of you surviving are pretty good.

If only because you’re not fighting for those odds.

So if you’re a protagonist and you know it, the next step is to figure out what kind of novel you’re in. Short of you being in the weird and uncertain fourth category, life is going to be unpleasant whether you live or not. Either everyone’s going to die, you’re going to die to save everyone, or practically everyone but you is going to die.

It’s enough to make you wish you were the alien, sometimes.

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Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

About Syed Faizan Ali

Faizan is a 17 year old young guy who is blessed with the art of Blogging,He love to Blog day in and day out,He is a Website Designer and a Certified Graphics Designer.


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