Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Schuster, Joshua

2nd Supervisor

Carmichael, Thomas

Joint Supervisor


In this project I analyze the roles that notions of viruses and immunities and their figurations play within the narrative discourse of speculative fiction. Focusing on a series of texts from twentieth- and twenty-first century American fiction, I seek to examine the ways in which the dialectical confrontation between infection and immunity is explored, reified, or challenged on a narrative level. The terms “virus” and “immunity,” so intrinsic to life sciences, have come into use to describe specific micro-organisms and biological processes only within the last 150 years. Yet these terms possess a significantly longer history in political, legalistic, and philosophical discourses. As such, their use in describing biological activities is always, at some level, a cultivated form of narrative. Central to my discussion is what I call “narrative immunity,” the sense that the narrative perspective within a text acts as an immunizing factor against the threat of viral contamination. Narrative immunity is a way of constructing, within a literary world undergoing a cataclysmic structural event (as is often the case in the plots of viral outbreak), a space and identity of familiarity and recognition for the reader. As such, looking at how immunity and infection are narrated within fiction, I posit, allows us to gain an understanding of how discourses of biopolitics germinate and develop along narrative lines.

Through a reading of Jack London, William S. Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, and Colson Whitehead, I argue that narrative immunity may be deployed in a variety of ideological ways, and that it can support both reactionary impulses and radical liberatory projects. What I argue throughout is that an understanding of how viral infection and immune defense are encoded within the narrative logic of a text allows us a means of grasping the biopolitical constructivism that frequently informs cultural production.