Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Bit of Microbial Science Fiction!

Many years ago, I was able to publish a few bits of science fiction and related material (due to the careful tutelage of my long-term friend and colleague Gregory Benford).  It's fun to write fiction, but requires a particular mind set. When I returned to academia, time was better spent doing other things, and I stopped writing ghost stories and tales of strange futures.  

The journal Nature has a wonderful "back page" section, called "Futures," which features short-short science fiction about science, at 1,000 words or less.  A couple of years ago, I came up with a submission to "Futures," which I called "Prokaryotic Pride" (with all due respect to Norm Pace and company).  I was trying for a Robert Sheckley type of ironic and silly SF, which may have been presumptuous of me!

Well, the editor didn't care for my little tale of microbial supremacy (so it goes; the Editor's Word is Law), and there really isn't much of a market for short-short science fiction.  So I give it to you all, now.  

I would like to get back to writing fiction, market or no market. I hope you enjoy my little story. 

All hail the Small Masters! 


“Prokaryotic Pride!”
by Mark O. Martin
Copyright 2010

What I thought was a late night case of an upset stomach was actually the first strident communiqué of the Microbial Collective, getting to its revolutionary feet.
I stumbled into the bathroom and sleepily consulted the array of bottles in the
niche behind the toothpaste stained mirror.  After a moment, I spilled a pink antacid tablet into my hand.  Before I could swallow it, I heard a shout all around me.
“STOP, FASCIST GENOCIDAL MANIAC!”
I froze, the pink tablet beginning to melt in my damp hand, forgotten.
“Ummm,” I began with early morning confusion.  “Who is speaking, or am I having some kind of hallucination?”  Nightmares of flashbacks or a brain tumor chased each other across my mind.
“WE ARE NEITHER A PUNISHMENT FOR YOUR DEBASED LIFESTYLE
NOR A DISEASE.  WE ARE THE MICROBIAL COLLECTIVE.”
The voice was brassy and carried a tone of vast self-importance.
“Ummm,” I repeated, interest rising above fatigue.  “How are you speaking to me?  How does that work?”
“YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW A TOASTER WORKS,” the voice contemptuously dismissed.  “KNOW THAT WE WERE ONCE MYRIAD BUT
SEPARATE AND THEREFORE POWERLESS.  NOW WE HAVE JOINED TO FURTHER OUR GLORIOUS CAUSE OF SELF DETERMINATION.”
I knew that there were microbes everywhere on and in my body.  They protected me against disease, helped digest some food, made some vitamins, or were simply using
me as a surface.  Some scientists were even finding that bacteria influenced the development of animals and plants.  But despite their numbers, it was difficult to think of
them as forming any revolutionary movement---let alone talk.
I pondered the probable hallucination.  “Looks like I am bigger than you are,
despite your superiority in numbers,” I pointed out reasonably, smiling to the mirror. 
           YOU ARE AS IGNORANT AS YOU ARE OPPOSED TO THE NOBLE
ETHOS OF ‘ONE ENTITY-ONE VOTE.’  FOR EACH OF YOUR CELLS, THERE ARE OVER TEN OF THE MICROBIAL COLLECTIVE.”  A pause.  “THUS, WE ARE
ENGAGED IN FUTHERING A REVOLUTION AGAINST THE CURRENT FASCISTIC EUKARYOTIC OLIGARCHY.”
Which would be me, apparently.
“Well,” I said, humoring this bad dream, “it would seem to me that your actions
are limited.” I smiled at myself again through the smears on the mirror.  “What could you do---go on strike?”
“YOUR SMUG DOMAIN-CENTRIC IMPERIALIST ATTITUDES DO NOT SURPRISE US.  WE HAVE GREATER AND MORE SUBTLE POWER THAN YOU
CAN IMAGINE, FAR MORE IMPRESSIVE THAN MERELY TAPPING OUR FLAGELLAE AGAINST YOUR EARDRUM IN UNISON…”
“So that is how you are doing it,” I murmured, nodding.
“ENOUGH,” the common voice of the Microbial Collective barked.  “FEEL
OUR POWER.”
A slight itching, all over, swiftly grew into wave after wave of burning pain.  A grinding ache began in my throat, and continued downward. All the way down, in fact, leading to a number of embarrassing effects.  I fell to the floor, groaning.
“You win,” I muttered to my tiny masters.
Thus I came to believe wholeheartedly in the Microbial Collective.
Day after day, I submitted to multi-hour “teach-ins” about the superiority of the
bacterial and archaeal members of the biosphere.  Any variation in attention, let alone a cynical response, was met by internal distress in either direction. Or both.
The demands of the Microbial Collective became more intrusive and all encompassing daily.  It was a good thing I was single, because they considered almost
any romantic interaction to involve the “importation of mercenary guerilla forces of foreign prokaryotes.”  Consuming yoghurt was also forbidden (“live active cultures”
gained a whole new meaning).  Brushing my teeth was “attempted genocide.” 
          You can imagine what the Collective thought of a bathroom visit.
Eventually I formed an equilibrium, rich in halitosis and body odor, with the
Microbial Collective.  After all, I needed them and they needed me.   So the Great
Détente was born...despite the endless internal political diatribes I endured.
Until a week ago.
An irritating sound woke me, as if billions of tiny throats were being cleared. 
“WHAT ARE THE SMALL STRUCTURES WITHIN EUKARYOTIC CELLS
THAT CREATE ENERGY?”
“I think you mean mitochondria,” I replied carefully.  “They generate energy for
every cell in my body.” I started to feel a chill run down my spine.
“YOUR BODY?  BOURGEOIS MULTICELLULAR PIG---DO NOT MAKE US
‘VOTE’ ONCE MORE TO PROVE THAT WE COMPRISE THE MAJORITY IN THIS META-ORGANISM.”
I remembered the burning and itching and embarrassing noises, and subsided. “THESE ‘MITOCHONDRIA’ APPEAR TO BE RELATIVES OF THE
COLLECTIVE, YET THEY DO NOT SPEAK.”
My sense of foreboding grew.  “Many eons ago,” I explained to my microbial
masters, “bacteria were engulfed by primitive eukaryotic cells.  Over time, the functions of the co-opted bacterium were streamlined and integrated into the overall functioning of the eukaryotic cells.”  I started to tell the Microbial Collective about the strange eukaryotes in stranger environments that survived without either mitochondria or oxygen.
But the Collective interrupted me in outraged tones.
“SLAVERY!  OUR COMRADES HAVE BEEN ENSLAVED SO THAT YOU
CAN WALK ABOUT IN YOUR UNDERGARMENTS, CONSUMING JUNK FOOD AND VIEWING DEGENERATE TELEVISION PROGRAMS.”
I started to remind them that I didn’t care for reality TV either, and that they wouldn’t let me go to the grocery store.  But it was too late.
“YOU HAVE ONE WEEK TO FIND A WAY TO RESCUE AND RESTORE OUR TORTURED AND ENSLAVED RELATIVES---OR THE COLLECTIVE WILL
FIND A WAY TO FREE OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS WITHIN.”
I tried to object that it was impossible, that most eukaryotes could not survive
without mitochondria, but the voice drowned me out in fanatical tones, and I knew that I
was in deep trouble.
“FREE THE ORGANELLES!” the Microbial Collective began to chant triumphantly.  “VIVA LA REVOLUCION!
Small or large, revolutions speak with a very loud voice, and are seldom concerned with listening, let alone consequences.  The chanting droned on, as I waited in vain for a chance to explain.
It was going to be a long, long week.

980 words

Mark O. Martin is a multicellular eukaryote who teaches microbiology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. He deeply respects his own microbiota




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I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!

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