Viruses (virii) get a bad press in science fiction generally. In films such as Virus, Outbreak or Twelve Monkeys they are presented as a threat to the survival of humanity. This reflects the fears associated with historical pandemics such as influenza in 1918, and more recent panics around SARS, avian or swine flu, and BSE.
Elsewhere, for example in 28 Days Later, Zombieland, the Underworld and Resident Evil series, and the forthcoming Daybreakers they seem to be replacing demonic possession or voodoo curse as the origin of the vampire, zombie, and werewolf. The reason may be that this explains the transmission of the “condition” by contact or bite; also using these explanations brings the monster myths up to date and introduces science or science fiction elements to the plots.
Occasionally viruses are used in more subtle or original ways: in Alastair Reynold’s novel Chasm City, a virus induces flashbacks from the life of a legendary figure; in the film Code 46 an empathy virus gives an investigator near-psychic powers of interrogation while it appears that other viruses can force code violation criminals to hand themselves over. In Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio the reactivation of a viral genome hidden in the human genome triggers an evolutionary leap.
In real life viruses may be deadly but also fascinating: they are the simplest lifeforms on the planet, some having as few as seven genes; they may hold the key to curing both viral and non-viral illnesses, in the case of live vaccines from cowpox onwards we are fighting fire with fire. The idea of silent viruses inserted into the genome is also plausible. In science fiction it’s hard to think of positive portrayals of viruses: the only one that springs to mind is the common cold responsible for foiling H.G. Wells’ Martian invaders.
Photographs of Luke Jerram’s Glass Microbiology sculptures are used here with the kind permission of the artist.