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Memetics in Fiction

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Kevin: [Memes are] the genes of a culture, from fashion to chord progressions in music... even political expression. And just like normal genes, they replicate. They grow, infecting more and more people.
Raiden: You buy a shirt you like, and put it on; other people see you wearing it, then buy it for themselves.
Kevin: Yeah. "The genes of a culture" make it all sound pretty lofty... But the way that Dawkins puts it, memes can transmit worthless things, even the bad parts of a culture.

Memetics is a fairly new field of science, sufficiently so that it is not even taught yet in most colleges. However, it has gained some traction in the Speculative Fiction arena so many sci-fi writers will reference the field in their works.

And of course, while the codified concept of memetics is new, like many other "new" broad tropes (like Moe), ur-examples can crop up quite a lot earlier than one might expect at first glance.

Tropes involving memetics:

  • Memetics (main topic)
  • Brown Note: Usually with a more supernatural bent.
  • Ear Worm: One of the better known varieties of memetic virus.
  • Infectious Insanity: Madness that spreads through memes.
  • Memetic Mutation: The internet meme.
    • Ascended Meme: A meme get used in the canon.
    • Discredited Meme: A meme is denounced by the general audience or the people associated with it.
    • Forced Meme: A meme is declared to be one without first becoming widespread.
  • Mind Virus: If not a physical virus, then a malign meme.
  • Oral Tradition: The oldest, and most mutation prone, means of memetic transmission.
  • Propaganda Machine: A totalitarian government's attempts at memetic engineering.
  • Science-Related Memetic Disorder: The Trope Namer was a meme virus that turned people into mad scientists, though most examples treat it as a more biological mental disorder.
  • Viral Marketing: Memetic engineering for marketing purposes.
  • You Cannot Kill An Idea: Dawkins had a more cynical approach to the concept, speculating that certain parasitic memes might actually spur their carriers to make martyrs of themselves to aid the meme's propagation.
  • Trope: Tropes themselves can be considered a type of meme used when writing fiction, memetics very well could encompass the study of tropes.

Works that feature memetics:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ghost in the Shell:
    • One of the core concepts behind Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is the use of memetics to influence a society that has integrated with technology to the point that people can be hacked and controlled by others if they're not careful.
      • One of the starting points of the Laughing Man story arc involves a police scandal involving the illegal and non-consensual use of "interceptors" in the police force, which allowed third parties to spy through their eyes without the officers knowing. When the Police Superintendent-General Daido tries to cover up the story, the Laughing Man springs to action and sends a warning that he would attack him later. Section 9 correctly deduces that one of Daido's bodyguards would be hacked by a virus that causes him to attack, but pandemonium breaks loose when 47 other random citizens show up to try and kill Daido. 47 people who had no connection to each other, all acted alone, and all sprung to action at the exact same time. It's later revealed that those 47 people weren't under the influence of any viruses or hacking, but were radicalized by the threat itself made by the return of the infamous Laughing Man, who's represented smiling face symbol that quotes The Catcher in the Rye had achieved pop cultural status after the initial "Laughing Man Incident" from six years prior. This phenomenon would later be dubbed a "Stand Alone Complex", which is defined as copycat activities which mimic a supposed original that doesn't exist.
      • However, even more than that, the return of the Laughing Man to threaten the Superintendent-General was itself a fabricated ploy to immediately distract the public from the initial corruption charges, and it would have worked if not for Section 9's intervention.
      • The initial Laughing Man incident became such a cultural phenomenon that the intial message of trying to uncover a government conspiracy in front of a live broadcast ended up being remembered by the public more for the spectacle it created than from the message it was presenting. The Major actually has to dig through TV broadcasts to find an original recording of how the incident played out, as it had spread around the net so much that people began to only remember what they wanted to remember about it. It's like the concept of Gossip Evolution, where the original message is lost and corrupted by each individuals own specific interpretation of what they were told.
      • The show's "2nd Gig" (second season) delves into the concept of using multiple Stand Alone Complexes to persuade and influence public opinion on certain subjects, such as the intentional spreading of misinformation (what would be dubbed as "Fake News" in the real world) to convince an entire population to show hostility against minority groups.
    • Misused in Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 when a Contagious A.I. refers to its code that infected the Posthumans as its "memes".

    Comic Books 
  • Weaponized memes get mentioned in passing in Transmetropolitan every so often, such as Spider mentioning the time the Red Catholics dropped the autocannibalism meme on Karel Square.
    "I still can't eat pork."

  • In the 10th anniversary edition of American Gods, Jesus explains that gods give up their mortal existence to live as memes, recreated indefinitely in people's minds in a thousand different ways.

    Tabletop Games 
  • At least two different GURPS settings have picked up this idea:
    • In The Madness Dossier, humanity was actually made or remade as a slave race by the terrible Anunnakku, who are opposed by the necessarily ruthless Project SANDMAN. The Anunnakku are masters of memetics, having designed us to be easy targets; the Sandmen have learned a lot about the subject for defensive purposes, and use it heavily.
    • In Transhuman Space the field of memetics has become pervasive enough that psychologists are thought of as meme-programmers or hackers. The Fifth Wave supplement provides some details, as well as a character template for a viral AI designed to spread a meme.
  • In Sufficiently Advanced, memetics has matured and is part of the Metatech category, representing psychology, sociology, and memetics that is as hard as the physical sciences.
  • Wild Talents: In the "Progenitor" campaign setting's Alternate History, a super brain discovered memetics decades before Dawkins and named it "Syntergenics", a compound of synergies, genetics, syntax, and interaction. The founder used it to craft a Syntergene to break himself free of Lyndon Johnson's mind control and its' spread influenced the anti-war movement; however, characters can craft less well-intentioned Syntergenes of their own.

    Video Games 
  • In Control, this is the source of some of the Altered Items, mundane objects that have gained paranatural abilities after being exposed to strong cultural ideas. For example, the Traffic Light was an ordinary traffic light near a schoolyard which spontaneously started playing the "Red Light, Green Light" game (as in, anyone who moves while it's red gets teleported away), and the Paper Lantern hung outside a ramen shop until it started inducing a euphoric state in anyone who came near it. It's also the reason that items associated with abstract ideas (right down to the logos on the vending machine snacks) are not allowed in the Oldest House.
  • Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance:
    • Monsoon discusses the concept in his pre-Boss Battle Motive Rant.
      Monsoon: Free will is a myth. Religion is a joke. We're all pawns, controlled by something greater: Memes. The DNA of the soul. They shape our will. They are the culture — they are everything we pass on. Expose someone to anger long enough, they will learn to hate. They become a carrier. Envy, greed, despair... All memes. All passed along. [...] You can't fight nature, Jack.
    • Also discussed between Kevin and Raiden in a Codec call after the defeat of Monsoon, on Richard Dawkins and his book The Selfish Gene, with memes defined as "the genes of a culture", how they spread and how contagious ones can get such as fashion, materialism, and the Cycle of Revenge, as well as acknowledging how one can know and spread the "good" memes while also spotting and killing the "bad" ones as well, with Raiden ending the Codec with a promise to kill the meme machine that is the "Sears Program" run by World Marshal and Desperato.
    • Later referenced by Senator Armstrong during his Motive Rant, explaining that The Patriots' memes of Nationalism, Unilateralism, and Consumerism ensured that the American people would to be ready to go to war on the slightest provocation, even years after The Patriots were gone, a mindset that he exploited for his own Social Darwinist agenda.
  • Rimworld: The "Ideology" DLC allows players to create Ideoligions built using up to four memes such as Individualism, Cannibalism, Transhumanism, profligate drug use...

  • A Miracle of Science is the Trope Namer for Science-Related Memetic Disorder, which in-universe is a memetic virus that scientific geniuses can be susceptible to, turning them into Mad Scientists. The first two pages show the series villain reading banned book "Crank Theories of Robotics" before breaking out in maniacal laughter, the book being a well-known vector of SRMD.
  • Memetics is referred to a few times as a mature science in the 31st century of Schlock Mercenary:
    • Side character Liz majored in Memetics in college, unfortunately due to the Hard on Soft Science meme persisting she found herself folding burritos for a living.
    • Company chaplain Theo Fobius occasionally refers to memetics, such as when berating Ennesby for programming repair bots to perform the Macarena (which has apparently been banned multiple times).
    • Putzho manages to explain memetic evolution without referring to the word "meme" once.
    • Some of the Boloceade get concerned about the crew of the Pursuing Dinosaurs introducing dangerous ideas to them despite their vastly inferior technology. They decide on isolating them in a meatspace section of their ship where they're forced to think more slowly than the virtual Boloceade.



Video Example(s):


Memes. The DNA of the Soul

Metal Gear Rising explores the idea of Charles Darwins take on memes, with this line becoming an internet meme in the Metal Gear fandom as well.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (13 votes)

Example of:

Main / MemeticMutation

Media sources: