Bacteria and Books: An Analogy of Antibiotic Resistance in the Literature

Literature by Octavia Butler is quite digestible in terms of its format and the language it employs; however, as we have discussed in class, the underlying meanings of her work are anything but simple.  As an author, Butler continually puts readers in situations in which they are forced to recognize and challenge any preconceived notions they may have. In the novel, Clay’s Ark, Butler does just this: she writes what appears to be a typical zombie apocalypse novel. However, beneath the surface the infected individuals in her novel are being likened to bacteria. This analogy serves not only as a commentary on antibiotic resistance, but also as a warning regarding the current and future decay of our society—as well as an inkling of hope for reversing it.

From her discussion of symbiosis to genomes, in her writing Butler makes her strong foundation in the sciences apparent. Various microbiology concepts are also employed in Clay’s Ark in order to forge a connection between bacteria and the infected population. In the novel, it is noted that one infected human can infect hundreds, and that their drive to both infect others and reproduce is nothing short of a compulsion. This compulsion to spread mirrors that of bacteria. To demonstrate this, below I have included a graph illustrating a typical bacterial population’s growth curve.  

Image result for bacterial growth curve

As we can see from this graph, once enough bacteria are present, they are able to emerge from their lag, or slow, phase of growth and proceed to grow in a fast, or logarithmic, fashion; this rate of growth is able to be sustained until resources run out or toxins accumulate—at this point growth diminishes and some members of the population will begin to die out. This propensity to grow and reproduce is paralleled by the those infected by the alien organism in Clay’s Ark, as they mention: “It’s really hard on us the way we limit our growth” (499). At this point in the novel, the infected can be seen in the lag phase of population growth. When we understand and apply Butler’s comparison to bacteria, it serves as a form of foreshadowing to the log phase of intense growth that their population will experience when their sporadic cases of infection bloom into a pandemic. Between the curve exhibiting bacterial population growth and the analogy that compares the infected individuals to bacteria in the story, I could not help but realize that the growth curve for the human population over time (shown below) also bears an uncanny resemblance to that of bacteria. I yet again wonder if this similarity is another subtle way of Butler extending her in-text comparison to the actual human population in order to make us analyze our past, present, and future growth (and eminent decay).

Image result for human growth curve from beginning of time

Butler draws a parallel between infected individuals and bacteria in order to provide a commentary on the issue of antibiotic resistance. Through the accounts of infected individuals in the story, we become aware that only the strong will survive infection: about four in fourteen according to the text, and that the few who do survive emerge with enhanced strength, speed, and senses. These “superpowers” do not come without a significant cost, it is clearly brought to our attention in the text that those who do survive infection also have an intense compulsion to rape and infect others, despite their best intentions. The survival and renewed vigor of a few strong individuals in the text parallels what occurs in the antibiotic resistance of bacteria. As noted in chapter 13 of Medical Apartheid, antibiotics that were once “magic bullets” (326) are no longer so effective; drug resistant bacteria are now on the rise and the treatments that once worked so well are no longer as effective. In the text the example of drug resistant tuberculosis is mentioned; what once could be cured by a simple prescription now requires a complicated cocktail of medications. It is also brought to our attention in the text that this resistance did not emerge overnight; with the advent of antibiotics we began to employ fewer preventative public-health measures to prevent infection (such as basic hygiene and testing for the disease). The results of this “hubris” (326) had disastrous results: the text emphasizes that due to the inequality in our health systems, people belonging to minority groups, prisoners, and the homeless fall victim to drug resistant TB at the highest rates. Antibiotics are undoubtedly one of the most important advents of modern medicine, but unfortunately, they have also been used as a hypothetical band-aid for problems with the public-health system. This failure to fight both the disease and social problems related to them has, and will continue, to hurt people and perpetuate inequality. Butler’s analogy in her novel serves not only to draw our attention to the dilemma of antibiotic resistance, but to the social factors that caused it (and must be improved).

In Butler’s writing her analogy between the infected population and bacteria initially draws our attention to the epidemic of antibiotic resistance. Through understanding the circumstances and effects of this dilemma, we can understand that she is trying to draw our attention to the flaws in the health system that brought about this. The setting of Clay’s Ark is a society riddled with social problems: there is anarchy almost everywhere and people are either fortunate enough to live in relatively safe “enclaves”—or else they reside in the decaying “sewers”.  This situation may seem extreme, but upon closer inspection it is sadly not too far from the practice of red lining and its effects on our society today. The realities of the novel are similar enough to our own for us to realize that if there is not adequate social change, the setting of Clay’s Ark could be the backdrop of our own future. The prevalent use antibiotics as temporary mechanisms to cover the problems of our public health systems mirrors the approach that many policy makers employ today. However, the better solution to both public health and general social problems is to enact lasting and meaningful change in policy.

Octavia Butler’s work, Clay’s Ark, may not have a happy ending but perhaps our own future can. In her work Butler makes an analogy between infected humans and bacteria in order to draw our attention to both the dilemma of antibiotic resistance and the factors that caused it. Through reading her work and employing this analogy, we can begin to understand that a bleak future like that in the novel can be prevented. Just as in the case of antibiotic resistance we have two choices in how to address public policy: we can ignore and attempt to cover up problems, or we can use our tools to instill lasting change. Butler works to show us what our society could be and suggest that by employing the latter approach we can prevent this.

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