Digital Patmos: Vol 1 Issue 3 | Representations of Science and Technology in Viral Apocalypses
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Representations of Science and Technology in Viral Apocalypses

Representations of Science and Technology in Viral Apocalypses

Fictional texts tend to draw inspiration from their surroundings and time period, such that they can act as markers to identify certain behaviors and attitudes common of the time of its production. Considering then the rapid development of science and technology in the past century, it would be interesting to see how things and mindsets have changed. In many apocalypse texts, scientific discovery and technology has been essential in ensuring the survival of the human species. This is particularly so in viral apocalypses as round the clock research and testing is necessary to identify, understand and stop the pandemic. With scientific research and discovery being such a critical aspect of viral apocalypses, a question arises – how have the developments in science and technology played out in these texts?

This paper aims identify and contract the different portrayals of science and technology in two viral apocalypse texts, The Scarlet Plague (London, 1912) (TSP) and Contagion (Shamberg, Sher, Jacobs & Soderbergh, 2011).

The virus spreads in Contagion.

This phrase includes science and technology as well as its agents and products, such as the bacteriologists and epidemiologists in TSP and Contagion respectively, as well as products of technological development such as firearms and long distance communication devices. Because the two texts here are highly similar in content but produced more than a century apart, the differences in treatment of science and technology can be possible indications of the ideological positions encoded in those specific time periods. This in turn offers a chance to observe and reflect on these changes, which might otherwise been overlooked.

Through close analysis of the two texts, this paper argues that while general depiction of scientists remains highly positive and ideal, there have been subtle differences in the nature of science and technology, with it being more politicized and questioned in Contagion than in TSP. The narrative on science ideology has however has on the whole, shifted from a pessimistic one in TSP towards a more positive and encouraging attitude in Contagion.

One of the first viral apocalypse stories, TSP is set in 2072 in which Grandser tells his grandchildren the story of the scarlet plague that rapidly wiped out the world 60 years ago. Highly contagious with zero chances of survival, bacteriologists were unable to contain the virus and humanity soon lost the fight against the plague. Written in a fleeting, depressing manner, TSP lacks the action and zest that is present in most apocalyptic texts today. On the other hand, Contagion is a modern day medical thriller-disaster film that follows the lives of certain individuals as they work to cope and respond to the virus. Amongst others are Mitch, the husband of victim zero as well as Dr. Cheever and Dr. Hextall, an officer and epidemiologist from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accurate and closely based on factual estimations, Contagion aims to provide a realistic portrayal of the consequences of such a pandemic. While in both medical apocalypses there is a significant reliance on science and technology to ensure the survival of mankind, portrayals of science and technology differ, as will be explored.

Dr. Hexall as she prepares to administer the test vaccine to herself

Glorification and admiration of scientists is something that has remained a constant in both texts. Taking up an almost Christ-like image, these scientists bring the gospel of scientific fact, and saves society from the virus. Elements of self-sacrifice remain prevalent too, with the eventual creation of scientists who can do no wrong. This is clearly evident in TSP where society appears to possess seemingly blind faith in science, fully trusting the bacteriologists to solve the problem. Even 60 years later, Grandser remembers them as “heroes,” with new ones heroically taking the place of fallen colleagues. This admiration of the bacteriologists is a stark contrast from the depressing tone of the rest of the story, thereby further highlighting the status of these scientists. Contagion initially appears to divert from such a portrayal of scientists, with foreign epidemiologist Sun Feng kidnapping a colleague to gain priority to access to the Meningoencephalitis Virus One (MEV-1) vaccine after its completion. However it is quickly evident that even such seemingly selfish behavior stems from selfless intentions of protecting his village, who would otherwise be “at the end of the line.” Further adding to this portrayal of the savior scientist is Dr. Hexall, who risked her life to save the rest of the world by testing the trial MEV-1 vaccine on herself to ascertain its effectiveness.

However, the glorification of science and technology in Contagion is limited to the portrayal of scientists. In contrast, TSP seems to completely place science and facts as superior to society and its values, with only scientists being found to challenge the impending disaster with facts and research while the rest of society grapples with self-inflicted destruction. This is implicit in the behaviour of society in contrast to that of bacteriologists. The response of society in reaction to the scarlet plague is also a stark contrast to that of the bacteriologists – where the bacteriologists courageously pulled together as a whole, stepping up to take the place of fallen colleagues in order to try and contain the virus, society failed to sustain itself for even a day. In San Francisco where Grander resided, the streets were deserted mere minutes after the first case of the plague. Within two days the panicked outrush for the countryside began, and following it was mass rioting, crime and violence on the streets. Any actions of the government are unmentioned; it is as if any non-bacteriologist social actor was helpless without the protection of science, and is capable only of working himself into a frenzy rather than remaining calm and collected for the benefit of everyone. This phenomenon however is less extreme in Contagion. Although there is hysteria and looting, society remains capable of organizing itself to ensure survival. Organisations distribute food, stores like the pharmacy remain open and law enforcement is present. Non-scientist actors like Clark also remain capable of taking rational, non-violent steps to protect their loved ones, his daughter Joey in this case, from the virus rather than spiraling into destruction. Society is thus seen to still possess rational control over itself, such that they are able to combat the virus in their own ways.

There have been other subtle differences in the portrayal of science and technology. Subtly but crucially, there has been an evolution from TSP’s blind acceptance and trust to Contagion’s more politicized and questioned response to scientific information released. There is an overlap between science and politics in Contagion which was not present in TSP. The CDC for instance now has to maintain a certain standard of confidentiality, and answers partly to the public. This is evidenced by the accusations and eventual court case against Dr. Cheever for his breach of confidentiality regarding the confinement of cities during the peak of the virus’ spread. The very fact that he is brought to the attorney general, that the public demands certain behavior of him, implies that the science community is no longer above the criticisms of the public. This contrasts attitudes maintained towards the bacteriologists in TSP, where science was an unquestioned universal authority –the public was sure that the bacteriologists would contain the virus again, “just like they had overcome other germs in the past.” Such a development is understandable however, since in Contagion the information released by scientists determined the course of action taken by political bodies and authorities, thereby directly affecting the lives of society in multiple ways. There is also in Contagion the portrayal of conflicting information with regards to cures for the virus, which originally in TSP was a topic left completely to bacteriologists. Homeopathic remedies – forsythia – is espoused in Contagion, and this competes for attention with legitimate information released by epidemiologists. It is acknowledged that the lack of mention of alternative, conflicting information in TSP does not represent that such information is not present; rather it is indicative of what the respective writer or producer of the texts thought were essential in the telling of the story. One can thus understand this as Contagion placing greater attention on the change in nature of scientific information where it no longer naturally holds centre stage. This is contrasted the situation in TSP where this might be less of an issue.

An illustration in The Scarlet Plague

One of the more significant changes in portrayal is with regard to the usage of science and technology by humans. Originally destructive and for selfish reasons in TSP, the narrative has evolved to contain a message of hope and selflessness in Contagion. A pessimistic attitude towards science and technology is described in Grandser’s closing monologue, that these developments would only “enable men to kill millions of men;” enforcing the idea that science and technology in the hands of men only resulted in death. Contagion however takes the view that science is complementary to humanity in that it presents individuals with opportunities to be better people. Vaccines for instance are limited and are distributed based on a lottery of birth dates, but doctors, first responders and others designated by the government are exempt, receiving instead a fast-tracked dose. When Dr Cheever received his vaccine dose however, he selflessly gave it to a janitor’s child who was more vulnerable than him. The vaccine, a product of science, gave him an advantage but he used this for the good of another. Furthermore, during the spread of the MEV-1 in Contagion, science and technology was never used to injure others, only for communication and research of the vaccine. This is in stark contrast to TSP where violence erupted from the developments of science and technology, with guns being used to murder and rob.

On the whole, the narrative on the ideology of science has taken a more positive turn. Attitudes regarding the use of science have become more confident; there is even a degree of expected infallibility of science and technology. Mankind has been deemed, in Contagion, to successfully master the use of technology and science as a defensive tool against viral threats. Although epidemiologists struggle to find a cure, humans eventually emerge triumphant, successfully creating a vaccine in the nick of time. In TSP however results differ. Mankind loses quickly as the plague kills faster than bacteriologists work, and humans are almost completely wiped out. This difference in attitudes signals a greater trust and faith in the capabilities of mankind today to harness the powers of science. Although this might admittedly be Sonderberg merely catering to the desires of cinemagoers for happy endings, it is undeniable that numerous other apocalypse films – and not just viral-related ones – rely on the eventual breakthrough of technology to save the world. Furthermore, humans have successfully fended off other similar viruses like H1N1 and Ebola before, and this possibly contributes to Contagion’s newfound feeling of infallibility.

In summary, there has been much change in the portrayals of science and technology in these two viral-related apocalyptic texts. The selfless, all-important savior nature of science, technology and its agents remains however, as prevalent as before. What has changed is rather the nature of science and technology – it is in Contagion more political and challenged than in TSP. Most significantly however is the difference in tone regarding the use of science and technology of mankind. Where it is pessimistic and a warning in TSP, in Contagion it has evolved and showcases the ability of individuals to selflessly do good for others using science and technology as a tool. This positive tone is further evident when considering the ability of humans to harness the powers of science and technology, as in Contagion scientists were able to defend from the virus while in TSP efforts failed, thereby leaving mankind to its doom. This shift from pessimistic to optimistic is intriguing when one considers that current academia speaks of a shift in the apocalypse tradition from a Promethean, self-confident approach to one with a conviction of human sinfulness and weakness, which is contrary to the results here.



London, J. (1912). The Scarlet Plague. Retrieved October 5, 2017, from

Shamberg, M., Sher, S., Jacobs, G. (Producer), & Soderbergh, S. (Director). (2011). Contagion [Motion picture]. United States: Participant Media.