Illustration: Steve Green

When strangers become infected with a complex bacteria, they can no longer experience the world in isolation. Such is the predicament of the characters in Noli Timere, a forthcoming graphic novel based on recent scientific insights into the human microbiome and beneficial epidemics.

The developing graphic novel will show what happens when a contagion confers an unexpected benefit on its host. Rather than harming the infected, the epidemic facilitates their interconnection with fellow human beings.

According to Steve Green, the novel’s illustrator: “The infection ultimately gives our main characters a newfound appreciation of the rampant transfer of microbial genes flowing between themselves and everything in their surrounding environment: people, pets, plants, and even inanimate objects in the urban environment. Even though the characters have never met, they understand each other deeply, as they have experienced life as each other; they begin to operate as a single organism.”

Green is working with microbiome researcher and SFI External Professor Jessica Green (University of Oregon), storyteller Anita Doron, and the SFI postdoctoral fellows to create the graphic novel. Through Noli Timere, which is Latin for “do not be afraid,” the collaborators hope to infect readers with a deeper understanding of how real-world epidemics can confer benefits.

Even language could be seen as a beneficial epidemic based on the way it spreads. “In the fictional story, sharing memories and ‘the hive mind’ as a function of an infection may seem weird and undesirable to us, but was language any different?” asks SFI Omidyar Fellow Vanessa Ferdinand.

Omidyar Fellow Chris Kempes sees the novel as an opportunity to communicate the postdocs’ recent research. “Last year we produced a paper that addressed the idea of spreading beneficial elements in systems ranging from bacterial evolution to new concepts in a society,” he explains.  “Noli Timere is an opportunity for us to convey this seldom-seen side of contagion through top-notch storytelling and graphic art.”

In May, the Noli Timere coauthors met in Santa Fe to outline the scientific and philosophical aspects of the developing novel. During the three-day SFI working group, they decided to structure the novel as co-evolving portions of the fictional narrative, interspersed with non-fiction scientific essays.

Noli Timere is still under development, and publication details will be announced in a future issue of Parallax.