BioSci Fi: SARS-CoV-2 as Puppet Master

The last few weeks as I have been dutifully reading or listening to good, educational, and “improving” books—mainly histories or biographies—I have felt a growing urge to re-read some old science fiction. But what? As the days went on, I began to feel myself pulled towards  to 1950s Robert A. Heinlein novels, all of which I have read at least five times in the last nearly 60 years. But which one? Gradually, for no conscious reason, my mind circled around one in particular, not one of my biggest favorites but not one of my least: The Puppet Masters, published in 1951.

Heinlein had a way of anticipating, and perfecting, plots that others later re-used without knowing that he had already beaten their best. All You Zombies, for example, is the perfect time travel story.  The Puppet Masters is the Platonic ideal of an alien possession story.

The setting: It’s 2007. We have colonists on Venus, which is also  inhabited by an intelligent non-human, and non-threatening species. On Mars we found only the relics of a non-human Martian civilization. We have flying cars, driven by centralized computer networks. World War III has left some glowing craters, but the U.S. is still in business.

And then alien slugs land, surreptitiously, in flying saucers. Each slug attaches itself to the back of a person’s neck—the slug then knows all that person knows and controls the still conscious human perfectly, in actions and in overt thoughts. The aliens reproduce by fission, communicate perfectly while in physical contact with each other, and may in fact  be just one organism in temporarily separated bodies. After landing in Iowa the slugs soon control the center of the country, from Minneapolis, through Kansas City (where Heinlein grew up), to New Orleans…and their zone is expanding.

What does this have to do with Covid-19? It turns out, everything. The threat is invisible. The slug-controlled humans pass as normal. No one believes they are alien tools. They replicate and spread quickly, from one “slug-ridden” person to the next. If a controlled human doesn’t have a spare “master” handy to use on a new victim, its own slug just splits in half and  its clone gets slapped on. A quarter of the country is in the aliens’ thrall before anyone else knows they are there.

Well, almost anyone else. Our hero, part of a secret agency (not, alas, called CDC), and his boss know better. And, unlike 2020, they quickly convince the President of the reality of the problem. But no one else believes it and countermeasures—notably stripping down to speedos and (for women) halter tops so the slugs can’t hide—fall short. That problem, at least, is eventually solved when enough ordinary people become convinced of the problem; vigilantes start shooting first and asking questions later of people who are too well dressed.  Dogs are slaughtered as even they (and all other animals cat-sized or larger) can be vectors.

Biology comes to the rescue. Borrowing from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, Heinlein’s slugs die from a disease found on Venus that takes nine days to kill humans—but only four days to kill slugs. And we already have a great vaccine for both treatment and prevention.  Spread the disease among humans in the infected region,  they pass it on to their “riders, who pass it on to their fellows whenever they make communicate directly with each other. Wait five days and then vaccinate all the now slugless humans.  The U.S.A.  is saved, and will cleanse the rest of the world eventually, but the cost has been vast. The parts of the world that have been infested are ruined, both economically and in terms of public health.  Malnutrition, typhus, and a host of other ills run rampant—the slugs cared nothing for the health of those they rode; they could always find more.

Sound familiar yet?  The book portrays a country invaded by a parasite, invisible to those not looking closely. The threat spreads exponentially. (It is even, like a real virus, at some interesting edges—the book notes a continuing debate as to whether the slugs are “truly” intelligent or just use the intellects of their hosts, just as today it remains debated whether or not viruses are “truly” alive.)  Much of the country’s leadership and most of the public don’t believe in the threat, especially as the media in the slug-controlled regions keep up the pretense that all is well. Eventually, we wake up and give science—in particular, infectious disease and vaccinology—the job of defeating the threat. It does, but only after millions of deaths and permanent changes to human society —and not just in clothing habits. (Heinlein was a recreational nudist, and no doubt enjoyed foreseeing that change.)  The slugs are eliminated as a mass threat, but individual slugs remain in remote places, waiting for any relaxation of constant vigilance to allow them to resume their takeover of humanity.

Don’t get me wrong. The Puppet Masters is not a great book. The romantic plot (starting with the personality of the female romantic lead) feels deeply unrealistic. Our hero has a strange family backstory that interferes with the story more than it helps. And, as he wrote it,  Heinlein, under the influence of his second wife, was moving more and more in a militantly conservative political direction. He apparently saw this novel as a parable of Communist infiltration of the United States, which, in retrospect, was not unreal but also never substantial. The book ends with our hero, his wife, and child, joining hundreds of others on a mission, a 12-year trip to Titan, the slugs’ home or, at least, their base in the Solar System. The book’s last lines are

Puppet masters—the free men are coming to kill you!

Death and Destruction!

One can only hope that we do not try the same thing against “the China virus.”[1]

Still, it is an entertaining read and a nice example of the plasticity of themes. Heinlein, who was not sophisticated about or very interested in biology, was not writing a fable about a virus.  But the situation he depicted, with its tensions and problems, was realistic enough to be a pretty fair facsimile of the Covid-19 pandemic in America. Which is a great strength of fiction, and particularly, I think, of science fiction—it is constantly repurposed and is far more than just “dual” use.

Two last possibly interesting points.  First, much to Heinlein’s dismay, his original manuscript was cut from 96,000 words to 60,000 words for its 1951 publication. In 1990 the uncut version was published. More sex, more speculation, more words—but it’s honestly not as good.  Sometimes tight edits really help authors, whether they believe it or not.

And, second, there’s something that, on re-reading this in September 2020, seems a noteworthy if minor coincidence:  One line in the book suggests that our hero had a stutter, not cured until he took a position of leadership. Just sayin’.

Hank Greely[2]

Stanford Law School

P.S. This is the most recent entry in a very occasional series of Biosci Fi blog posts in the Center for Law and the Biosciences Blog, all written by me except for one by Professor Ryan Calo. It started in fall 2012 and the last entry was July 2015—but 2020 seems like a good time to revive it!  We welcome (interesting) submissions!

Entries include

Series introduction (Oct. 2012),

Robert Heinlein’s short story, Jerry Was a Man (Oct. 2012),

Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Childhood’s End (Oct. 2013),

The Curious Case of Isaac Asimov (four short stories) (Dec. 2013),

Ryan Calo, Brendan Sanderson’s novel, Mistborn: The Final Empire (Jan. 2014)

Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Singing Bell (July 2015),

[1]           Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler seems already to have suggested as much after the news of President Trump’s infection, tweeting “”Remember: China gave this virus to our President @realDonaldTrump and First Lady @FLOTUS.  WE MUST HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE.”

[2]           I’d like to thank my research assistant, Cassidy Amber Pomeroy-Carter, for her suggestions.