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Z-Spaces: An Animorphs Psychochronography #1
poparena wrote in animorphs
Psychogeography - The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.

Psychochronography - The study of a time period through a specific singular object.


What follows is a series of short, irregularly updated essays concerning the time period in which the Animorphs book series was published, focusing on the emotional, artistic and political landscape of which the series was a part of. I plan to do one essay per book. As always, discussion and debate is encouraged. :)



#1 - You don't know anything about reality, Jake (#1 The Invasion)

It's June 1996. "Tha Crossroads" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony take #1 of the billboards for the entire month, a tribute song to the passing of rapper Eazy-E to AIDS. Eazy-E is best known as one of the founding members of N.W.A. along with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and is still considered one of the pioneers of gangsta rap, a genre of music known of its use of crime and drug iconography. Supporters of the genre call it a documentation of inner-city life, while detractors claim it as both promoting certain criminal behaviors as well as stereotyping African American youth as uncultured and unintelligent. While the genre originated as far back as the 1980s, it was 1996 when it arguably hit its final high mark with the arrival of Jay-Z, Tupac releasing the first rap double album, and Snoop Dogg being acquitted for first-degree murder.

Regardless of your taste in gangsta rap as a musical genre, it found an important place in 90s American culture as one of the few things to paint a negative critical image on, well, 90s American culture. The 1990s, now more than ever, felt like a safe decade, a comfortable decade. I often think of the 90s as the tropical vacation resort of decades, pleasant and a tad artificial. Vietnam and Watergate were becoming distant memories (Richard Nixon had passed away in 1994). The Cold War was over. The economy was good. The only major military action in that decade, Operation Desert Storm, is considered one of the quickest and cleanest wars in history. President Clinton was the Democrat's answer to Ronald Reagan, a goofy celebrity president who played saxophone on Arsenio Hall.

It was in this landscape and Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant released Animorphs, a science fiction young adult series about a group of teenagers who discover a secret invasion of mind-controlling aliens. Animorphs is a lot of things, a mixing pot of various cultural, political and ethical ideas that I feel can only be accurately strained in the context of the 1990s. This is why I haven't actually read any of the updated reprints (though I have purchased all of them in support of Applegate), because I feel something in lost in translating the story for a 21st century audience. Yeerks don't work in a world where the word "terrorist" is constantly being thrown around to label boogeymen, while massive protests are toppling governments. The Yeerks as a concept can only really function in a complacent, unsuspecting world.

Complacent is the key word here. It's no coincidence that the series opens in a mall of all places, a symbol of American consumerism. It's also no coincidence that 3.5 of the main characters are white, and all but one live comfortably. Jake and Rachel are white and live in upper-middle class families. Jake's father is a pediatrician, his mother a writer and his brother a high school heartthrob and basketball legend. Rachel's mother is a lawyer and her father is a news anchor. Cassie's family live what has to be an expensive piece of real estate and are living their dreams of helping animals. Marco, who is half-white, has fallen on hard times at the beginning of the series, but before the supposed death of his mother, his life was also extremely comfortable, to the point where yacht trips were a regular occurrence.

The only Animorph that doesn't fit into this mold is Tobias, and that is perhaps the reason he is the most accepting of the situation. He never had the idyllic 90s lifestyle that the rest of the Animorphs enjoy and is more capable of divorcing himself from it. And it is that lifestyle that the Yeerks are invading. In just the first book, we discover that the Yeerks have their fingers in schools, police and community projects such as the Sharing. The first book is largely about the Animorphs struggle against this realization, that these smiling white cornerstones of American life are secretly corrupt. This is often the subject of gangsta rap. N.W.A.'s "Fuck Da Police" presents a fantasy trial in which rappers prosecute police officers for discriminatory behavior, calling them out on their privileged status in the community. Meanwhile, the moment in which the Animorphs realize that things are serious is when they discover that a local police officer is a Controller, one of the Yeerks who have infiltrated their society and dwell in their secret base under the city ("fuck the police, coming straight from the underground").

This series is not just about the Animorphs Vs. the Yeerks, but about the Animorphs Vs. the 90s. In order to save the world, the Animorphs must remove themselves from what the world currently is, because it's that world that the Yeerks have already conquered before the book series even begins.

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I cannot wait to read the rest of these.

Unfortunately I'm not in the best place to communicate right now (wheeee work-related stress), but I hope PLEASE CONTINUE THIS ANALYSIS, IT IS AWESOME AND HITS ME RIGHT IN MY DENTED LITTLE NERDY ALMOST-AN-ACADEMIC HEART is sufficient encouragement to keep going?

I was a little skeptical at first, but this looks like it will be a very interesting project. I hadn't thought before about the atmosphere of the '90s, and how that worked with the effect of the Animorphs books on the reader.

And, not to be a Douchey McNitpick, but...

yacht trips were a regular occurrence

IIRC they owned a sailboat, which, yes, implies some serious disposable income, but isn't quite in the same class as a yacht. The major change in their circumstances after Eva's "death" also implies to me that it was a luxury they probably couldn't really afford, and that they were living to the very edge of their means, if not a little beyond. Which, when you think of it, is also pretty '90s, and pretty in tune with what we see of Peter, though not Eva so much.

Wow. This looks to be really interesting. You're right in that Animorphs doesn't fully work outside of the cultural landscape of the 90s. I pretty much ground floored Animorphs and kept up with them as they were coming out all the way through, so I guess I was right there with them. I got the first two books in... I guess it had to have been August of '96, just before I went into the fifth grade. Sooo this is going to look a lot like a tour of my childhood and adolescence.

Edited at 2012-02-07 11:03 pm (UTC)

This is fascinating and very thought-provoking. I look forward to reading the rest of this series!

This is really brilliant - definitely looking forward to reading these.

I think that what you're alluding to regarding The Sharing (i.e. typical 90s community group) is very true - and I don't think groups like that play as significant a presence 15 years later, although I've no suggestions for a reasonable 2012 counterpart.

Seconding that this is an interesting idea! I know I'm also very curious about how American culture and history factors into the series, since that's always been something I've wondered about, not being American myself.

Although, I think in a way you could argue that if the series was written today, the 'Yeerks' could very much feature as a representation of modern fears about terrorism, about the fears of being 'invaded' and of being attacked from the inside. But, it would be a very different series - you certainly couldn't have that cultural complacency that you talk about, and the Yeerks would have had to be much more competent on order to be a credible threat.

if the series was written today, the 'Yeerks' could very much feature as a representation of modern fears about terrorism, about the fears of being 'invaded' and of being attacked from the inside.

Agreed. I think Animorphs had been set any time in the last five years, it'd be a very "Tomorrow series-esque" invasion, where the 'invaders' were never named and the Yeerks would be extremely military. We only see them seriously engaging military tactics in the later books, although that might be because the Animorphs themselves never planned such heavy missions until things started getting serious. There'd be a lot more emphasis on guerilla warfare IMO.

By the way, the Tomorrow books were also published in the 90s. It's an interesting comparison, because they feel much less dated than Animorphs.

Since I'm an Aussie, I'm pretty familiar with the Tomorrow series! and I still long for the day when someone will write Animorphs/TWtWB crossover fanfiction Possibly the reason why the Tomorrow books feel less dated is because of the setting, though. While Animorphs is urban, the Tomorrow books take place in the bush and in rural Australia. And as a result of the invasion society pretty much changes completely, so there's much less of a connection to things like the pop culture references that you get in Animorphs.

and I still long for the day when someone will write Animorphs/TWtWB crossover fanfiction

I knooooow. I think a_happy_book is writing or has written some. *hopes*

why the Tomorrow books feel less dated is because of the setting, [...] society pretty much changes completely

Yes! That's true, actually.
Also, all the messing with explosives and such gives them a more realistic feel (obviously!) and we have no cartoon villain/Big Bad equivalent of Visser Three.

She's mentioned it, but as far as I know none has been completed yet... /hopes with you

There's definitely a lot of thematic similarities between the two series, but they differ greatly in terms of tone and target audience. The Tomorrow books I think were aimed at an older audience, and they had less room in them for things like the humour that you could get in Animorphs.

I disagree about the Yeerks not working as a concept in 2012. While every country does have enemies, and sometimes these are in fact powerful and dangerous enemies, the many civilian protests which have toppled governments have shown that sometimes the greatest threats to stability are internal. American culture sponsors the freedom to assemble and protest for basically any reason, so a very wide ranging audience of protestors, and also counter-protestors exists.

Maybe the largest change, which itself would still be quite small, would be that instead of using a community program as a false-front, they used a movement or protest as a false-front. "Threat To Complacency" could be a major theme or even slogan of the false-front, advertising for people to think for themselves, with help from the false-front of course. It would be a great parallel to show that even the most noblest of causes on the surface are doing so for bad/selfish/other reasons underneath.

Forgive me for any doubts about how well-written these pieces would be! I'm always a fan of identifying and expanding on context, but what I didn't expect was your examination of how the 90s as a concept was/is an entity of itself that our heroes must divorce themselves from in order to win the war. Brilliant! I can't believe that hadn't previously occurred to me!

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