Imperial we

Notes on novel invaders & the anxious intimacies of contagion

These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here.… But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain. —H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1897)

Long before Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock conceived the Gaia Hypothesis, Wells formulates this striking concept: microbial entanglement as a kind of immune system for the biosphere. In The War of the Worlds, he pictures a species-wide threat neutralized by our multispecies condition—twenty years before the influenza outbreak that would infect nearly a third of the global population and kill as many as one hundred million.

Written at the height of the British Empire, Wells’s tale expresses imperial anxieties. Humans now “go to and fro over this globe about their little affairs,” Wells notes, “serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.” Suddenly planetary, human affairs pale into insignificance on cosmic scales.

In good imperial fashion, Wells’s Martians come not to exterminate humankind, but to enclose and appropriate us. In an uncanny displacement, they seem a version of the moderns’ ideals of bodily transcendence and cephalic precedence. “(A)ll the complex apparatus of digestion,” Wells writes, “which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads—merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins.”

If we’re to be subjugated by such strange and familiar overlords, Wells admits, we have it coming to us. “(W)hat ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo”, he notes, observing that “(t)he Tasmanians … were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy,” he wonders, “as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

My ellipsis in the quote above elides an ugly aside; in full, Wells wrote, “the Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence.” Then as now, being-species falls differently on different groups; the “toll of a billion deaths” is more smoothly accounted the price of birthright by one blessed with a survivor’s fortune. The “we” to be punished by these implacable extraterrestrial invaders, however, presumably includes more than the citizens of Mars-ravaged London; all humankind will pay the price. Sound familiar?

Now, we’re faced with a novel invader of our own, faced with the differential dilemmas of being-species. It’s interesting to ponder: what would it mean to see the virus a fellow-traveler, a companion species in this planetary venture?

How we address this sudden reminder that the space between us is vital, replete, and charged with contagion, is interesting, but it is also urgent. As poet Anne Boyer writes in her elegant, astonishing newsletter, “The way social distancing works requires faith: we must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don't do is also brilliant and full of love.”