ALTHOUGH THIS MAY seem counterintuitive, science fiction is often one of the most realistic of genres. It may set its stories in future times or among weird alien species, but the best science fiction can often express political and social anxieties more openly than can realist drama. Sometimes this is a matter of escaping the notice of censors who don’t take the genre seriously, but it can also be an example of what television critic John Ellis describes as the capacity of the medium to help us “work through” the slings and arrows of contemporary life. Working through, a concept Ellis takes from psychoanalysis, allows us to analyze, repeat, interpret and otherwise engage with difficult experience in the displaced form of fiction, facilitating the process of coming to terms with disturbing thoughts and experiences.
A repeated pattern in this year’s science fiction television is plotlines about epidemics, suggesting that we are culturally working through some anxieties about our biological vulnerability. As early as 1995 Laurie Garrett published The Coming Plague, arguing that things such as overuse of antibiotics, lack of access to clean drinking water for much of the world’s population, the overcrowded conditions of urban poverty in the Global South, and massive refugee migration caused by warfare were producing conditions in which viruses and microbes would thrive. She anticipated that in the near future we would see new and devastating disease outbreaks as the microbial world travelled and mutated as never before. Recent outbreaks of diseases such as Sars and H1N1 have made us aware of the looming threat of a viral pandemic, and indeed it now seems as if we are sufficiently educated about such matters that this week’s episode of Helix could drop the term “zoonotic transfer” into the dialogue without even pausing to gloss. Dracula, too, includes an outbreak of sorts – although it is a deliberately caused by those evil oil barons – and even The Walking Dead supplemented their zombie infection with an outbreak of quotidian cholera for part of this season, a hint that contagion anxiety is about more than biological health. In our harsh economic times, zombies emerge more and more as our possible selves, expelled parts of the body politic – just as labor is expendable to global capital and migrant laborers are unwanted by many nation states. Indeed, this pattern is so prevalent that in 2009 Lev Grossman declared zombies “the official monster of the recession” in Time.
Revolution has added a viral contagion to its exploration of the sinister machinations of the Patriots in the post-electricity world. As one might expect, this is not a naturally occurring contagion – although, of course, by this I mean “expect in the conspiracy-thriller narrative,” because of course one might expect reasonably expect biological outbreaks in this frontier setting. The Patriots are using their engineered strain of typhus as a method for culling populations, deliberating infecting those who are physically or mentally ill and thus eliminating their non-productive drain on the community. There are no zombies on Revolution and its infected do not become zombie-like – they merely sicken and die. And yet there is something in this plot of viral eugenics that is reminiscent of the recent zombie theme about lives that matter vs. those that do not.
Helix is premised on a viral outbreak with its CDC characters, remote research station setting, and plotlines that are something of a cross between Steven Soderberg’s Contagion and The Walking Dead. Now in its fourth episode, Helix remains compelling, although not without its frustrations. The mysterious back-story is unfolding at a respectable pace and enough happens within an episode to avoid boredom, and yet the full picture is still only dimly lit and out of focus. Yet, while I understand the need to have secrets and competing agendas to keep some tension in the plot, I am finding the fact that a core CDC team member would hide both her own illness and that another person is infected (to protect this secret) strains credulity, particularly because the series went to so much trouble to make its CDC protocols seems “real” and not science fictional.
While I was initially impressed with the diversity represented by casting in Helix, such diversity is being stripped away as the season unfolds: their non-stereotypically-attractive female character is dead, the Asian scientist is becoming more straightforwardly evil, it seems, and the remaining person of color is an infected, animal-like “vector,” which is basically Helix’s term for the zombie-like dangerous infected. When asked if he is just going to “abandon the sick and the dying” in order to restore order to the facility, the sinister Dr. Hatake says “yes” without pause, but he later also peremptorily executes some inconvenient non-infected, and so I hope that Helix is avoiding the binary logic of “humans” and “infected” that animates the zombie genre.
Despite these quibbles, I still find Helix to be among the best science fiction shows I have seen in a while. I acknowledge the appropriateness of the zombie as the monster of choice to express contemporary anxieties: zombies are hungry, relentless, flesh that we no longer want to consider human, that we see only ever as a threatening mass, and that serve no purpose other than to consume. As many critics have argued, zombies exemplify the poor as seen by the logic of neoliberalism. Yet I’ve become tired of the ubiquity of zombies and the quite literal dead end they seem to offer for thinking about global crisis. Helix promises to transform its vector-zombies into something else, posthumans made by the virus inserting new DNA into their genome, a new species simultaneously human and animal and other. This new strand of DNA, we are told, will force the infected to “express a new trait.” This is an apt metaphor for the hope I hold out for series overall, that it might enable science fiction television to express a new metaphor for anxieties about viral contagion and precarious human health, and thus we finally might escape the ubiquity of zombies.