Scott Van Wynsberghe: The blindspot sci-fi historians don't talk about: diseases
Rather like Gothic fiction, what might be called "disease science fiction" is something of a disease itself, infecting other literatures and entertainment.
By: Scott Van Wynsberghe
For over two years now, we have been stumbling through what feels like a science-fiction scenario: a scary-as-hell global plague, with advanced medicine as our only hope. Yet there is a problem here for science fiction. Viewed through the pandemic, science fiction is obviously fixated on communicable and parasitical disease — but it often ignores or downplays this.
The pattern is hard to miss, once you look for it. Mary Shelley, of Frankenstein fame, also wrote the 1826 novel The Last Man, about the sole survivor of a pandemic. Accounts of alien invaders using biological warfare date back to at least Robert Potter's 1892 novel The Germ Growers. Pulp magazines of the early 1900s added more illness, with the main instance being John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Roughly every ninth episode of the original Star Trek series (1966-1969) had something to do with disease. The Alien movies that began in 1979 are about a creature that lays eggs in people's bodies — the very definition of a parasite.
In all, the research for this article (hardly exhaustive) identified over a hundred relevant novels, short stories, films, television shows, games, and comic books. Some of this is oddly optimistic, and germs actually save humanity in H.G. Well's The War of the Worlds (1898), but a hideous syphilis experiment in Thomas M. Disch's Camp Concentration (1968) is more typical. The origin of this morbid preoccupation is uncertain but may involve Gothic literature of the 1700s and 1800s, which is known to have influenced early science fiction. One Gothic scholar, Marie Mulvey-Roberts, has commented that this dark, irrational field "replicates itself throughout our culture like a virus."
So what do science-fiction experts have to say about all this? Not much. Such 1950s movies as The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers featured blood-sucking monsters and parasitical infiltration — could it get more blatant? — but weirdly led to the still-prevalent and questionable view that these were actually metaphors for the Cold War. (For the record, the source material for both those cited films, including the aforementioned 1938 Campbell story, does not involve the Cold War at all.)
The prominent British author Kingsley Amis, a major fanboy, brought out a book-length study of science fiction in the early 1960s but somehow overlooked disease. The Swedish devotee Sam Lundwall issued his own survey in 1977 and pretty much repeated Amis's omission. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by James Gunn and published in 1988, had no entry for disease or medicine. The 1999 version of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, was an improvement and featured entries for both medicine and parasitism, but the former covered pandemics in just one paragraph, and the latter overlooked those contentious 1950s movies. In other words, decades of science-fiction commentary blew it.
And it gets even worse. For example, the current obsession with zombies incorporates at least five wildly successful multimedia franchises: The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, Dead Space, and World War Z. All of these involve disease, not voodoo or black magic. Therefore, the present-day zombie is a science-fictional creature, not a supernatural one. In fact, zombies have been linked to science fiction almost from the start of their popularity in the early 1900s. In 1938, the science-fiction enthusiast (and later author) Wilson Tucker started a fanzine called Le Zombie. The 1941 film King of the Zombies is about a Nazi plot to create mindless slaves through hypnosis. The 1952 movie serial Zombies of the Stratosphere features an alien incursion. Richard Matheson's 1955 short story “Dance of the Dead” takes place in the aftermath of a terrible conflict that involved biological warfare, which left not-quite-alive casualties who become sources of amusement for the healthy survivors. And this is all well before George Romero linked zombies to an errant space probe in the now-classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.
Mentioning Richard Matheson is important. If indeed there is an alternate history of science fiction with sickness at the centre, then he would be a key figure. In addition to nudging zombies away from the supernatural and towards science fiction, he did the same for vampires. His 1954 novel I Am Legend (filmed three times) presents vampirism as the result of an ancient germ that runs completely out of control in the wake of some vaguely described world war.
Thus, rather like Gothic fiction, what might be called "disease science fiction" is something of a disease itself, infecting other literatures and entertainment. Just look at what happened to thrillers. A very early discussion of bioterrorism can be found in the 1895 H.G.Wells short story “The Stolen Bacillus” (which unfortunately ends on a lame, comedic note). Over the next three decades, there was a spate of tales about crazed bacteriologists by such writers as W.L. Alden, Rudolph de Cordova, Edgar Wallace, Robert W. Service (the Klondike poet), and A. Sarsfield Ward. Ward is better known as the creator of the Chinese archvillain Fu Manchu, who was sometimes involved in microbial schemes. (However, China was more often on the receiving end of fictional germ attacks, as shown by an 1898 novel by M.P. Shiel and an equally racist 1910 short story by Jack London.)
And those 1950s movies that are supposedly metaphors for the Cold War? By focusing on them, critics have neglected a genuine instance of science fictional, anticommunist paranoia, The Whip Hand (1951). Directed by William Cameron Menzies, a notable figure in science-fiction cinema, this movie deals with an ex-Nazi mad scientist who has teamed up with communists to secretly take over a small town near Minneapolis as part of a plot to poison the U.S. water supply. Phew, no need for metaphors there.
It is no surprise, then, that James Bond battled a germ-warfare conspiracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (novel 1963, movie 1969). Ian Fleming's flirtation with disease science fiction was part of a 1960s trend among thriller writers that culminated in Michael Crichton's 1969 bestseller The Andromeda Strain (filmed twice, the photo above is from the 1971 release by Universal Pictures). Along the way, Alistair MacLean brought out The Satan Bug (1962; movie 1965), in which bioterrorism is used as a front for a bank heist.
Thirty years later, the combination of national security and disease was still vigorous, thanks to The X-Files, which ran from 1993 to 2002. Although this series hit so many subjects as to be hard to generalize, its central preoccupation with a UFO conspiracy included a black goo that entered the bodies of victims and took over their brains — plainly a parasite.
Spies and pathogens were still at it right on the eve of our own pandemic, in the form of the television series Counterpart (2017-2019). This show, which is now even more unnerving than before, involves two parallel Earths that are spiralling into a clandestine war because one of the Earths was stricken by a vicious contagion that may have originated on the other. The vision of life on the diseased Earth — seething with anger and obsessed with hygiene — is uncanny..
So why is science fiction so reluctant to acknowledge this huge sickness fetish? Part of it is ideology — again, those misconstrued 1950s films — and part of it could be discomfort over Gothic influence, but maybe the whole thing is so big and disturbing as to discourage much consideration. Some of it is especially disturbing. In the 1951 short story “Dark Benediction,” Walter M. Miller Jr. imagines an alien infestation that is non-lethal but causes unsettling mutation. Ultimately, the main character stops fighting it and accepts exposure, hoping for the best. Acceptance also figures in William Tenn's 1955 short story “The Sickness,” which deals with a Martian disease encountered by astronauts, and Ted White's 1970 novel about parasitism, By Furies Possessed.
We seem to be getting a message here — one that might appeal to antivaxxers.
Scott Van Wynsberghe is a Winnipeg writer whose essays have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and (being an Edgar Rice Burroughs buff) ERBzine
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Note from The Line editors: We’ve worked with Scott before and are delighted to get him writing again. Scott has always included copious source notes for his essays, and we think they’re often as much fun as the essays. We include them below, with his permission.
Shelley: The Last Man is summarized in Brian W. Aldiss, with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (London: Gollancz, 1986), 46-50.
Potter: See the entry for Robert Potter in John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds., The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 2nd ed. (London: Orbit, 1999 softcover reprint of 1993 hardcover original).
Pulp magazines add more illness: Campbell's Who Goes There? inspired all the movies about The Thing, of which more below. The story originally appeared in the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and has been often reprinted since then, notably in Ben Bova, ed., The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. IIA (New York: Avon, 1974 softcover reprint of 1973 hardcover original). Other examples of pulp sickness include Dust of Death, a Doc Savage adventure by "Kenneth Robeson" (Harold A. Davis and Lester Dent), which first appeared in the October 1935 issue of Doc Savage Magazine and was reprinted in 2007 by Nostalgia Ventures. In it, a power-mad Latin American general, disguised as the "Inca in Gray," commits bioterrorism with a lethal dust consisting of swarms of very tiny, stinging, parasitical insects. Also of interest is Murray Leinster's short story “The Plague,” which first appeared in the February 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and later resurfaced in Grof Conklin, ed., Science Fiction Omnibus (New York: Berkeley, 1963 softcover reprint of 1952 hardcover original). This describes the fight against a communicable, electrical-based disease fatal only to women, which really sounds Freudian.
Star Trek: See the episode listings in Gerry Turnbull, A Star Trek Catalog (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1979) and Phil Farrand, The Nitpicker's Guide for Classic Trekkers (New York: Dell, 1994). By my count, nine out of 78 episodes involve disease.
Alien movies: There are currently six of these, plus crossovers with the Predator franchise. Infamously, the first film established the pattern of a pod that unleashes some sort of egg depositor that latches on to a victim's face and inserts the eggs down the throat. The young Alien eventually bursts out of the victim's chest. For the record, there is a debate over how much the first Alien movie was influenced by a 1958 film about a blood-sucking Martian stowaway on a spaceship, gloriously entitled It! The Terror From Beyond Space. The entry for this film in Leonard Maltin, ed., Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (New York: Plume, 2008) is blunt: "Alien owes a lot" to the 1958 movie. However, the entry in Clute and Nicholls, eds., written by John Brosnan, is not so impressed by the link. Adding a further twist, the entry in Gunn, ed. reveals that the scripter for the 1958 movie, Jerome Bixby (himself a significant science fiction author) was deliberately imitating the 1951 version of The Thing, of which more below. This shows a remarkable level of interconnection in science fiction about disease: a 1951 movie about a parasite leads (arguably) to a 1958 movie about a parasite, which may have influenced a 1979 movie about a parasite.
Optimistic material: In Well's The War of the Worlds (New York: New York Review Books, undated U.S. hardcover reprint of 1898 original), it turns out that the only vulnerability of the invading Martians is ordinary bacteria — "the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this Earth" (235). Decades later, the 1955 William Tenn short story “The Sickness” sort of reversed Well's formula: an expedition from Earth to Mars is exposed to Martian microbes, but the microbes turn out to be so beneficial that the astronauts resolve to take the infection back home. See Bob Hoskins, ed., Tomorrow 1 (New York: Signet, 1971). Wells's formula underwent yet another variation with the 1964 film version of his 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon, which was scripted by Nigel Kneale. Kneale was faced with a problem, because NASA was close to landing on the Moon in the mid-1960s, and the evil "Selenite" insect race of the novel obviously had to be explained away. Fortunately, Kneale had a background in science fiction disease, having previously written the 1953 British television miniseries The Quatermass Experiment, in which an alien infection converts an astronaut into a monster. In a clever move, Kneale introduced the fact that one of the 1901 adventurers had a cold, which spread to the Selenites and wiped them all out by the 1960s. For more on The Quatermass Experiment, see the published version of the script (London: Arrow, 1979 softcover reprint of 1959 hardcover original).
Syphilis experiment: Thomas M. Disch, Camp Concentration (New York: Bantam, 1980 softcover reprint of U.S. edition of 1968 U.K. original). In this novel, prisoners are guinea pigs in research involving a modified version of syphilis that causes short-term intellectual brilliance and long-term madness and death.
Gothic influence: The entry for "Gothic SF," by Peter Nicholls, in Clute and Nicholls, eds., is extensive but still manages to ignore disease.
Gothic literature as a virus: See Marie Mulvey-Roberts's introduction to The Handbook of the Gothic, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2009), which she edited. Her remark appears on xxii.
1950s movies: The interpretation of 1950s science fiction cinema as being an extension of the Cold War is presented in Phil Hardy, ed., The Film Encyclopedia, Vol. II: Science Fiction (New York: Morrow, 1984), 124; and in John Clute, Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Toronto: Macmillan, 1995 Canadian edition of 1995 U.K. original), 264. The problem with this approach is apparent with The Thing (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The Thing cannot be a true expression of Cold War thinking, because it is based on John W. Campbell Jr.'s short story “Who Goes There?” dating all the way back to 1938. The 1951 film actually tones down the nature of the alien creature. In the 1938 version, it attacks victims right down to the cellular level, infecting and taking over every part of them. For the 1951 film, however, it is a vegetable-based vampire, using human blood to nourish its seedlings. The two subsequent film versions (1982 and 2011) restored the 1938 concept. It is noteworthy that a science-fiction writer named Sam J. Miller was inspired by the 1982 film, with its 1980s setting and all-male cast, to draw a connection between the creature and AIDS. See his short story “Things With Beards,” in Rich Horton, ed., The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2017 edition (n.p.: Prime, 2017). As for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the crucial point is found in the original novel by Jack Finney, entitled simply The Body Snatchers (New York: Dell, 1967 softcover reprint of 1955 hardcover original). During an explanatory passage towards the end of the book, it is repeatedly pointed out that what the hero is up against is a "parasite" (153, 163). In other words, he is battling a genuine disease, not a symbol for international communism. On top of that, the book makes clear right from the start (7) that he is a doctor! The disease aspect is so strong that Nicholas St. John, the screenwriter for the 1993 film version, said in an interview that he regarded the alien threat as a "disease." See Keith Holder, “Body Snatchers: The New Invasion”, in Cinefantastique, December 1992.
Amis misses disease: There appears to be not one reference to disease in Amis's New Maps of Hell (n.p.: Four Square, 1963 softcover reprint of 1961 hardcover original).
Lundwall misses disease: In his Science Fiction: An Illustrated History (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978 U.S. ed. of 1977 Swedish original), Lundwall mentions a 1910 Jack London short story about germ warfare (47) and the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (113), but he sees no connection between them and says nothing more about disease.
Gunn misses disease: See James Gunn, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (New York: Viking, 1988).
Clute and Nicholls are an improvement: In Clute and Nicholls, eds., the entry for "medicine" is by Brian Stableford and John Scarborough, while the entry for "parasitism and symbiosis" is by Stableford alone. Note that there is also an entry for "War," which is utterly useless for disease, and an entry for "Weapons," which barely mentions biological warfare.
The Walking Dead and disease: The first season of this show, which started airing in 2010, was so explicit about the role of disease in the zombie outbreak that the main characters even visited what was left of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
28 Days Later and disease: The 2002 movie, which spawned a sequel (2007) and some comic books (2009-2011), involves a "rage" virus that is inadvertently released from a research lab during a raid by animal-rights radicals.
Resident Evil and disease: This franchise started with a 1996 game and then turned into a series of films starring Milla Jovovich. As noted in the New York Times review of the first film (15 March 2002), an evil corporation creates a virus that turns people into the "undead."
Dead Space and disease: This franchise began with a 2008 game and branched into novels, comic books, and one animated movie. As noted by various New York Times reviews of the games (3 October 2009 and 2 February 2011), contact with an alien artifact turns people into "necromorphs." Reviewer Seth Schiesel says "just call them space zombies."
World War Z and disease: This franchise involves Max Brooks’s 2006 novel, the 2013 movie, and a 2019 game. The novel (New York: Three Rivers, 2006 softcover reprint of 2006 hardcover original) relates on 4-18 that the zombie plague starts in China, but the movie removes this.
Tucker's fanzine: See the entry for Tucker in Clute and Nicholls, eds.
King of the Zombies: This little-known film is worth seeing just for the performance of black comedian Mantan Moreland, who makes the most of a thankless and racist role as a servant and actually seems to be ad-libbing at points.
Zombies of the Stratosphere: This is summarized in an encyclopedia of movie serials by Ken Weiss and Ed Goodgold, To Be Continued ... (New York: Bonanza, 1972), 316.
Matheson's “Dance of the Dead”: This is included in his collection Shock! (New York: Dell, 1961).
Errant space probe in Night of the Living Dead: The portion of Romero's film that mentions the probe is summarized in Joe Kane, Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever (New York: Citadel, 2010), 16. Note, however, that Kane's book also reproduces the entire script of the film, by John Russo, on 219-300, and the space probe is absent there, so it looks like this was a detail added during the filming. Russo's novelization of the film (New York: Warner, 1974) does mention the probe, on 134.
Matheson's I Am Legend: The novel was printed as a paperback original (Greenwich, CT: Gold Medal, 1954) and inspired the films The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007).
H.G. Wells and bioterrorism: “The Stolen Bacillus” is included in Wells's collection 28 Science Fiction Stories of H.G. Wells (n.p.: Dover, 1952 hardcover reprint of 1932 hardcover original).
Crazed bacteriologists: See W.L. Alden, “The Purple Death” (originally printed 1895), and Rudolph de Cordova, “The Microbe of Death” (1897), both of which are included in Science Fiction by the Rivals of H.G. Wells (Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1979). Edgar Wallace's 1919 novel The Green Rust is described in the entry for him in Curtis C. Smith, ed., Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers, 2nd edition (Chicago: St. James, 1986). The 1926 Robert W. Service novel The Master of the Microbe is mentioned in the entry for him in Clute and Nicholls, eds. Finally, A. Sarsfield Ward's short story The Green Spider (1904) is also in Science Fiction by the Rivals of H.G. Wells. Ward's creation of Fu Manchu is detailed in Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014). The 1965 film The Mask of Fu Manchu centres on a germ-warfare plot.
China on the receiving end of germ attacks: M.P. Shiel's 1898 novel The Yellow Danger is a paranoid tract about a Chinese invasion of Europe, which inspires the defenders to resort to cholera as a weapon. The book is discussed in Aldiss and Wingrove, 146, and in Sam Moskowitz's essay Shiel and Heard: “The Neglected Thinkers of SF”, in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, August 1960. Jack London's own story about germ warfare, “The Unparalleled Invasion,” is in Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard, eds., The Complete Short Stories of Jack London (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 1234-1246.
The Whip Hand: Although by no means a major work, this film is a major surprise and deserves much more attention. (I've watched it three times, and I'm still enjoying it.) The entry for it in Hardy, ed., 133, reveals that it suffered serious production problems, because it started out as a movie about a fugitive Adolf Hitler, only to be completely reworked into a Nazi-communist-biological-warfare thriller. The finished product shows no hint of this turmoil.
James Bond: Ian Fleming, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (London: Pan, 1964 softcover reprint of 1963 hardcover original). The key discussion of germ warfare is in chapters 21 and 22 (184-199).
Crichton's bestseller: Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain (New York: Dell, 1970 softcover reprint of 1969 hardcover original). By 1976, the softcover edition had gone through 30 printings, and its sales were in the millions. There is certainly no justice in the world of bestsellers, because Crichton's plotline — a space probe bringing back a disease — was not new. A 1953 British TV miniseries, The Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale, was pretty much about the same thing. (Kneale's script was later printed as a book, London: Arrow, 1979 softcover reprint of 1959 hardcover original.) In 1965, Harry Harrison repeated the formula in Plague From Space (New York: Bantam, 1968 softcover reprint of 1965 hardcover original). And of course, there was that wayward space probe in Night of the Living Dead, from 1968.
MacLean's thriller: Alistair MacLean, The Satan Bug (n.p.: Fontana, 1964 softcover reprint of 1962 hardcover original, which ran under the pseudonym "Ian Stuart"). After numerous red herrings, it is finally revealed on 209-212 that everything was camouflage for the heist.
The X-Files: The key episodes about the black goo are Piper Maru, Apocrypha, Tunguska, and Terma, which all aired in 1996. The first two are covered in Brian Lowry, Trust No One: The Official Third Season Guide to the X-Files (New York: HarperPrism, 1996), 161-172. The second two are detailed in Andy Meisler, I Want to Believe: The Official Guide to the X-Files, Vol. 3 (New York: HarperPrism, 1998), 93-113.
Counterpart: Mike Hale reviewed the series for the New York Times (20 January and 13 December 2018).
Especially disturbing material: Miller's “Dark Benediction” appears in Vic Ghidalia, ed., Eight Strange Tales (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1972). William Tenn's 1955 Martian yarn, detailed above, involves that plot reversal apparently aimed at H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. Ted White's By Furies Possessed (New York: Bantam, 1970) is technically a 1970s novel but has a subversive, late-1960s feel to it. Note that a lot of disease history is packed into these stories. For example, “Dark Benediction” may have had a major influence on Richard Matheson's vampire novel I Am Legend. In Miller's tale, infected people are trying to build a new society, which is exactly what occurs in Matheson's novel, which was published three years later. In any event, the fact that “Dark Benediction” came out in 1951 seems significant, because that was the year in which the movies The Thing and The Whip Hand were released, and it was also the year of publication of The Puppet Masters, a Robert A. Heinlein novel about alien parasites (New York: Signet, 1953 softcover reprint of 1951 hardcover original). For whatever reason, 1951 stands out as a central moment in the history of disease science fiction, and ripples from that moment were still visible decades later. In 1964, the television series The Outer Limits ran an episode, “The Invisibles,” that was suspiciously close to the plotline of The Puppet Masters. In both tales, the alien parasites attach to the backs of victims, and secret government operatives are battling the infestation. For details on “The Invisibles,” see David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen, The Outer Limits: The Official Companion (New York: Ace, 1986), 185-191. Six years later, Ted White brought out By Furies Possessed, which now looks like a conscious rejection of the paranoia of both Heinlein and The Outer Limits. In White's book, alien parasites are once again at work, but they ultimately turn out to be beneficial and are accepted by the main character. They also have a different form of attachment, since the host has to swallow them, allowing the creatures to take root at the back of the throat. White's argument for parasitical acceptance was apparently too much for most science fiction enthusiasts, because the paranoia of earlier years came roaring back at the end of the 1970s with the first of the Alien movies, which of course also involved infestation through the throat but had nothing to do with acceptance.