Is 21st Century Civilization Immune? A Review of the Novel Immunity

Taylor Antrim's Immunity, a novel set in a post-pandemic world, provides an interesting view of how such a world could look, operate, and devolve. Even as a work of fiction, there are aspects of Antrim's insights--some of with which I agree, some with which I disagree--that merit discussion in their own right.

In the universe of Immunity, the TX virus, a genetic recombinant of influenza and Lassa Fever that emerged in Texas, has circled the globe in a murderous spree. By killing 4% of the world's population the pandemic threw the governments of the world into a quarantine-laden panic. At the time of the events depicted in the novel, the pandemic is over but occasional flare-ups continue to occur, prompting draconian controls, in the name of "public health", on the population. The plot of the novel centers on a young former socialite who has is struggling to flourish in this setting that is rife with unsavory individuals and public health "police" who are ready to pounce with just one errant cough or elevated temperature reading on the ubiquitous thermal scanners that this world is rife with.

The unsavory characters range from the protagonist's conspiracy-minded father (who is eerily reminiscent of people who I debated during the West African Ebola outbreak), to "propagators" who purposely try to infect unsuspecting citizens by coughing on them, to the overtly exploitative who find a perverse pleasure in sacrificing others to their whims. The various strands of the events in Immunity culminate in an intersection of biotechnology and surveillance that leaves the reader wondering what really happened and what will happen next. 

What I take to be the theme of Immunity is what is worthy of discussion. Antrim's point seems to be on stressing how the well-off are not only the first to be granted immunity through biotechnology but that they are, in a higher sense, immune from the vicissitudes of the rumblings in the infectious disease world. Through hyperbolic characters, Antrim shows that the realm of the rich and famous is easily adaptable to a world in which a deadly virus has destroyed the lives of everyone else. I suspect Antrim is making a political point about the relative resiliency of various socioeconomic segments of the population and is using the TX virus as a background. However, the fact that the world still turns after 4% of the population has died is itself a fact that highlights species-level resiliency that transcends socioeconomics.

My own thoughts on this theme are somewhat different. Humans today live in a civilization that is itself largely immune from the challenges of outbreaks that occurred just 50 years ago. Today, worldwide extreme poverty -- in real terms -- is at its lowest. Smallpox has been vanquished with polio and guinea worm about to follow suit. Even Ebola, because of major advances that have occurred in the basic understanding of the clinical illness as well as in vaccine technology since the last outbreak, has been substantially defanged.

In many ways civilization's progress can be roughly gauged by the conquest of various infectious diseases. This species-wide resilience humans possess (which I discussed in my recent Atlantic piece) is the result of both the immune systems and the fruits of humans minds that have largely rendered nature's beasts, in all their shapes and sizes, threats from a bygone era...if we are willing to confront them with the appropriate response.