14 September 2013


Sliders: Quarantine Zone

The morality of public health makes fascinating Science Fiction. The earliest example I can think of is Samuel Butler's novel Erewhon: its hero discovers a "lost" civilisation in which people are sent to prison for falling ill and those who commit crimes receive some sort of therapeutic treatment. The former group can't help but get worse in prison--seen as further sign of their guilt and unfitness to take part in society--while the latter are often successfully rehabilitated. The satire must have been mind-blowing to the Victorians, but it's an everyday matter to us. At least the health part of it is. Ours is the age of the "lifestyle disease," after all. The implication is that if we can control our lifestyles, then we can control our health. There is no excuse for being sick . . . except, perhaps, lack of virtue. And who wants people who lack virtue contaminating the neighbourhood?

At least the people in the next alternative world on Sliders have an excuse for calling the police whenever they suspect a sick person is in the building--but that's a great plot twist that comes near the end, so I'm not going to say what it is!

"Patient Zero" is the new "Public Enemy Number One"
--and the reward for his capture is US$1 million

This version of the mid-90s has the feel of a futuristic dystopia. Trucks drive around spraying what I presume is industrial-strength sanitiser on the streets . . . restaurants boast that they serve "good clean food" that is as unappetising as it is sterile . . . and people suspected of having "the Q" are arrested by the authorities before they can infect anyone else in the populace.

What do you think of the last reaction? Is it absolutely wrong . . . or well-intentioned and just over-the-top? Note that "the Q" is deadly, incurable and highly contagious. Everyone is desperate for a cure, which is why the majority are willing to look the other way when those with the illness become virtual prisoners (and human guinea pigs) in government hospitals.

While I have a feeling that "the Q" was originally intended as a thinly-veiled satire for AIDS, what the episode reminded me of is the newer vaccine controversy. There are increasing numbers of parents who do not want to vaccinate their very young children, and their decision is seen as reckless and irresponsible. They are, their critics argue, endangering not just their own flesh and blood but also the rest of the population. Of course, no one also seems to be arguing that children should therefore be torn from their parents' arms and vaccinated . . . but this other dystopian scenario doesn't seem too far-fetched to me.

About a month ago, a French client told me that her government has other ways of making sure that children receive the "mandatory" vaccinations. For instance, only children with the right medical records are allowed to enroll in public school and many private schools. When I told her I knew American parents who have decided against vaccinations for their children and mentioned that these parents also plan to homeschool, her answer of "Yes, that is what they do, too" got me imagining an entire French subculture that can't help being different--not because they want to, but because a single decision in one area closes doors in countless others.

Then again, as this episode hints, a single development in one area often opens doors everywhere else. Think of all the diseases we are no longer afraid of because it is so easy these days to obtain a cure. 

This is one of the best Sliders Season 1 episodes in terms of world building and writing. If you like dystopian scenarios and parallel worlds (and don't mind a light sprinkling of cheese), I highly recommend it.

Your Turn to Slide: If our world could be turned into a dystopia by the loss of a single medical discovery or innovation, which one would it be?


Belfry Bat said...

I was about to say "chloroform", as a stand-in for anaesthetics, generally; and it was in my head because I've been reading through Lewis's The Problem of Pain — where he remarks that almost all of Salvation History, theodicy, the conviction that God is Good, et.c. predate this marvelous discovery (... though, of course, we've known about ethanol, cannabis, and opium for a good long time... ) And that's why I think, actually, it isn't the want of an invention that would be dystopian, but tyrannical control of it, whether forcibly applied (as perhaps with vaccines, not to mention water fluoride) or forcibly withheld (... segregated hospitals, anyone?) or recklessly popularized (I am not a libertarian).

So, my real answer will have to be "the (original) Hypocratic Oath"

Enbrethiliel said...


That's a good answer! =D It also breaks out of the box I hadn't known was around my question when I asked it. LOL!

Now I'm trying to see how your first formula applies to this episode of Sliders. In that world, there is no cure or treatment that is being controlled in some way, and the forced hospital admissions are just a more extreme form of fear-based discrimination.

So I've got to wondering about the ethics of not wanting the unhealthy and the contagious around. It's true that they spoil the public health record and break down herd immunity, but it also seems to me that an insistence on perfect health conditions is a form of idolatry.

DMS said...

Wow! This post really has me thinking. From the book to Sliders- so much to think about medically. Makes me think of the book (and movie) Blindness in which people there is an outbreak of blindness and no one knows why. Everyone is quarantined and it shows how society acts.

All the allergies that are around today that weren't around in such large numbers in years past- makes me think that there could be a dystopian world around that. Belfry bat also gave me a lot to ponder!


Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Jess!

Now that you've brought up allergies, I must say that I'm amazed at how many things children in developed countries have found to be allergic to! These allergies are just not that common in developed countries. So I could see a stratified society straight out of H.G. Wells's Time Machine, with the well-off and allergy-prone rich as the Eloi and the tougher but not healthier poor as the Morlocks. I'm lost when it comes to plot, though!

Is the book you're talking about Blindness by Jose Saramago?

TARDISgirl99 said...

IMHO one thing that is rapidly turning America into a dystopian nightmare is our determination to wipe out 99.99% of germs on EVERYTHING! We're creating super germs while at the same time decreasing our immunity. Give me plain old soap and water!

Enbrethiliel said...


I think about the same thing whenever I wash my hands! Have you noticed that nearly all soap these days is "anti-bacterial"?