The words “virus” and “pandemic” are all around us. The media is constantly bombarding us with them and friendly acronyms such as “COVID-19” and “SARS”. We are currently living in a climate of fear and anxiety most of us would prefer to find only in SF movies about alien invasions and post-apocalyptic futures. It is a fear of the unseen because we cannot see the virus that has become part of our everyday lives, as have lockdowns, confinement and isolation. We have lost our freedom of movement and countless small liberties we used to take for granted. Have we entered an era of mass hysteria or are the measures imposed upon us right and reasonable? Are we on the verge of a breakdown in our social order? These are the sorts of questions often posed in Sci-Phi, so I set myself the task of finding parallels in SF. I have tried to avoid horror fiction, but all good disaster SF has an element of horror and formless fear to it.
The best place to start is with the classics of this genre: H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) and John Wydnham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). The War of the Worlds is, on the surface, an alien invasion story. Digging deeper, it is an exploration of societal and personal collapse. The narrator and other main characters are never named, giving it a universal feel: this could happen to you or to me. The Martian invasion in this story can be likened to the spread of a virus, just with the unseen made viscerally visible. Wells himself drew parallels to the social devastation wrought by British imperialism and, today, we could draw parallels to rampant globalisation obliterating all resistance in its path.
The alien tripods protecting the fragile bodies of the Martians come armed with “heat rays” and a poisonous “black smoke” – we cannot help but think of chemical warfare today. This thought comes with uncomfortable questions for – are not humans an infestation that needs to be wiped out from the point of view of the “superior” Martians? As well as their deadly weapons, the Martians bring with them the “red weed” to take over the surface of our planet like a vibrant parasite. In the end, the Martians are killed by simple pathogens, unseen infectious agents. This is the closest parallel to COVID because we too, in our hubris, could be wiped out by such microscopic organisms.
My favourite adaptation of the novel is Jeff Wayne’s 1978 rock opera with the mesmerising voice of Richard Burton as the narrator. The basic plot of the novel was maintained in the rock opera but several details were changed, for example if we look at the SF anthem, “The Spirit of Man”. In it, the nameless pastor from the novel becomes Nathaniel whose wife Beth, a character that does not exist in the book, argues with him as he despairs. Nathaniel has been driven mad by the invasion and is ranting and raving about the end of times:
“Listen, do you hear them drawing near
In their search for the sinners?
Feeding on the power of our fear
And the evil within us?
Incarnation of Satan’s creation of all that we dread
When the demons arrive those alive would be better off dead!”
The pastor is lost in his fear: for him the world has descended into hell and there is no hope of salvation, not even for a chosen few. Beth refuses to accept this:
“No Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the love we used to know
(No) Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the light that we have lost.”
Beth believes in the spirit of man, that humanity will survive somehow. As Nathaniel sings of darkness and demons, she clings to love and light with unwavering faith. Interestingly, the power of religious faith is not really part of the original story. In the novel, the narrator has a nervous breakdown after the ignominious end of the Martians and is helped by kind strangers, so there is perhaps some faith in basic humanity. Upon his return home to find his wife alive and well, the narrator still cannot shake off the anxiety caused by his recent ordeal, as humanity cannot hope to survive a disaster of such proportions unscathed. Unlike a great deal of disaster SF, we have no hero saving the world; humanity is saved by pure chance.
Nightmarish as Wells’ scenario might be, it remains small in scale. All the action occurs in and around Woking, touching briefly upon South London. The scale of Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids is much larger – it is a global disaster. The aliens are replaced by a manmade enemy: bioengineered carnivorous plants capable of locomotion, armed with stingers and poison. The triffids could be compared to an opportunistic virus that spreads after a freak “meteor storm” blinds most of humanity (the protagonist wakes from an eye operation and several weeks with bandaged eyes to a world gone to hell, ironically spared permanent blindness because he could not witness the lights in the sky). Social order breaks down completely and the triffids sweep through like a ferociously efficient pandemic. These monsters do not seem particularly intelligent, acting mostly on instinct, but they only have to bide their time and strike at the weakest, just like COVID kills those with the lowest defences.
There is much ordinary courage in The Day of the Triffids with the protagonist/narrator and the small family unit he manages to build surviving against all odds. There is even a love story which, although it is a pragmatic partnership in many ways, is real and solid in a disintegrating world. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist reflects without bitterness that humanity probably brought the disaster on itself, theorising that the “meteor shower” was actually the result of manmade satellite weapons systems being set off by accident and producing blinding radiation. He hopes that future generations will learn from the mistakes of their ancestors. He and his family unit will retreat with others to an island they can defend (the Isle of Wight) until they can find a way to fight back. The spirit of man does survive in this novel.
The zombie apocalypse film 28 Days Later about a rage-inducing virus spreading from animals (chimpanzees) and causing societal collapse in the UK clearly borrows a lot of ideas from The Day of the Triffids (for example, the protagonist wakes up from a coma to a devastated world). The infected can no longer function cognitively and simply starve to death. The sequel 28 Weeks Later shows the “Rage virus” being spread to Europe (the pandemic originally having been contained within Britain) by an asymptomatic carrier – one of the biggest fears in any pandemic scenario.
Ray Bradbury’s short-story collection The Martian Chronicles(1950) contains a short story that also touches upon disease, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright”. In this story, the fourth manned expedition to Mars discovers that the Martians have been mostly wiped out by chickenpox (an infection caused by a virus), brought by one of the previous expeditions. It is ultimately a story about colonisation. Bradbury ponders on whether there is a right or wrong form of colonisation, with wrong being an attempt to recreate Earth (thereby repeating old mistakes) and right having respect for the fallen civilisation (and learning from it). We are left with the question – are humans an infestation on Mars or will they become the new Martians in a brave new world? This question is highlighted in another short story in this collection, “Night Meeting”, where two characters meet outside time but without us knowing which one represents the past and which the future. It is almost irrelevant as civilisations will always rise and fall and disease will always be one agent of change.
The Star Trek canon also examines viruses in different contexts. The most fun episode is “Macrocosm” in Season 3 of Voyager. In it, we see Captain Janeway single-handedly fighting giant viruses in a spoof of Aliens. She is combating the result of a viral infection with insect-like macro-viruses flying around the ship infecting the crew and propagating from their living flesh. The doctor and Janeway manage to exterminate the giant bugs in the end with an antiviral gas. In reality, antiviral medication cannot be produced in less than one hour.
In the episode “The Quickening” in Season 4 of Deep Space Nine, Dr Bashir tries to find a cure for the “blight” caused by biological warfare, where the series’ archenemy, the Jem Hadar (the military arm of the Dominion), infect a planet that resisted them. Bashir is unable to cure it but finds an anti-viral treatment that acts as a vaccine – when injected into pregnant women, the baby is born disease-free. This is the hope in any pandemic, that a vaccine can be found to preserve at least the next generation. Ironically, Earth later hits back at the Dominion by infecting an unwitting carrier who, in turn, infects other Changelings like himself. Deep Space Nine does not shy away from the tough questions of whether anyone (including humans) has the right to use biological warfare to potentially wipe out an entire race.
The most interesting viral analogies are the indirect ones made by the existence of the Borg. We first encounter them in Star Trek – The Next Generation. In the double episode, “The Best of Both Worlds” (which ends season 3 and begins season 4), Captain Picard is “assimilated” and briefly becomes Locutus, a mouthpiece for the Borg Collective’s hive mind. The Borg are clearly presented as a militaristic virus – taking over entire races, using “nanoprobes” to infect their technology, and disposing of the weak.
My final example is a less well-known film, Daybreakers. It is an interesting mix of SF and vampire tropes, where a plague caused by an infected bat has transformed most of the world’s population into vampires. The remaining humans are captured and harvested for blood but, as the human population shrinks, there is a shortage of blood for food. Vampires deprived of blood and who drink their own blood instead become psychotic and increasingly bat-like “subsiders” – a whole underworld culture is suggested with blood as the currency. The protagonist is a vampire scientist attempting to create synthetic blood. He discovers that an accidental cure has been found for vampirism – using the right amount of sun and water. Drinking the blood of a “cured” vampire will cure the drinker too, but the protagonist must fight against the corporate powers that do not want to change the status quo and lose their profits.
To summarise, SF is full of disaster scenarios involving viruses beyond our control, whether they kill humans or alien enemies. Sci-Phi also goes further, where humanity itself may be seen to be the disease, asking hard questions about colonisation and colonialism. Viruses can also become a much more abstract agent that may transform rather than kill us, although the transformation is rarely a desirable one. I expect that this is partly because a plot where we all are infected with, for example, love and peace, would make for a very short story.
The fears and anxieties triggered by COVID are primal ones and, as we have seen, ones that are widely explored in SF and Sci-Phi fiction. So how can we best respond to the panic arising both at a social level (e.g. mass hysteria or a breakdown of social systems) and a personal one (e.g. people suffering from increased anxiety and compulsive disorders, or depression due to isolation)? I would like to finish with this quote from C. S. Lewis. As you read it, replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus” in your head:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year… or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me… you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways…
… If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
Of course, C. S. Lewis had not met the concept of “social distancing” but the central tenet stands: we must face our fear of death head on, whatever form it takes. And Sci-Phi gives us a safe forum in which to stare straight into the eye of the monster.
[My thanks to Ian H for drawing my attention to the quote from C. S. Lewis.]
Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.