Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sentient Viruses and Other Boogeymen

I posted a review of Jeff Lemire's graphic novel Trillium earlier today: it's a good book that I thought was unfortunately marred by a cartoonish and thought-starved depiction of a "sentient virus." The review wasn't about the virus -- and the book really is pretty good despite it -- but it turns out I have more to say about it.

In Trillium, The Caul -- that's the name of this virus -- operates on thriller logic. It infects every single human being it comes in contact with, it's very quickly fatal in 100% of cases, and it's utterly unstoppable. (The text explicitly says that space doesn't stop it, which implies it's impervious to radiation, too. Perhaps it's even meant to be physically unbreakable, which would be a different kind of silly pseudo-science.) Lemire doesn't make it clear if The Caul can also infect or be carried by other organisms, but, under typical thriller logic, it would pretty much have to: a killer virus has to be able to lurk anywhere and everywhere, to pop out like a axe-wielding maniac in a dead-teenager movie.

This is very, very different from the behavior that an actually intelligent parasite would likely exhibit, and very different from what most viruses actually do. Organisms want to reproduce themselves and grow, and it's difficult to do that if they keep repeatedly destroying all of their habitats (human beings). Viruses do end up killing their hosts, a lot of the time, but they mostly wouldn't want to: they'd want to keep the host alive as long as possible, providing a refuge for the virus and allowing it to reproduce and spread.

In fact, a truly sentient virus could be a vastly scarier thing: combine the horrors of an infectious disease with the neurotoxins and puppet-mastery of something like a parasitic wasp, and The Caul could be an alien hive mind that takes over your body and kills you slowly while pumping out millions of copies of itself to conquer even more people.

If Lemire had thought through his ideas a bit more, he could have had a much stronger work, and there would have been room to contrast a forced gestalt of The Caul (human minds ruled or controlled by the virus) with the consensual sharing of consciousness mediated by the title flower.

Oh, well: there are a million books never written, and every book is the sole survivor of a vast lineage of books that didn't make it. It's probably better to celebrate the good parts of the books that did come into existence, but sometimes cursing the darkness is just more satisfying. I really would have liked to have read the book in which The Caul made sense.

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