Worldbuilding: A Sneeze Away

So, let’s talk allergies.

Allergies are interesting and often underused in fiction. A fact I find intriguing, given the whole preoccupation SF tends to have with genetically-engineered super-predators and super-humans. Almost all of whom are supposed to have super immune systems that no virus or bacteria has a chance of cracking.

…So why don’t they have super allergies?

No, hear me out. The immune system is a carefully-engineered work of biological paranoia, ready and armed to the teeth, seething with the desire to rip anything identified as not-self to itty, bitty shreds. And then eat them, often dousing them with hydrochloric acid, bile salts, and hydrogen peroxide in the process. Your red blood cells are often good for six months; your average white blood cell only lasts three days because it’s programmed to self-destruct before it can do too much damage. “Too much damage” being defined by going after something it only thinks is not-self. Which is just scratching the surface of auto-immune diseases that make people’s lives all too horrible. Look up multiple sclerosis and ALS for what happens when your immune system starts going after the nervous system, for one. It’s a nightmare.

And that’s a bog-standard immune system. A super-human immune system ought to be much, much worse. Hyperactive white blood cells and a bloodstream pumped full of antibodies to anything that comes down the block should make an individual more prone to the body attacking itself. And while your average person tends to need multiple exposures before allergies really kick off, a superhuman ought to be extremely prone to allergies to the oddest things that they’ve only encountered once.

Meaning your genetically engineered superman might need a bandolier of plain old everyday epi-pens, if he wants to live long enough to use his super-reflexes. Yikes.

On the other hand, in a good fictional world this might explain vampires and werewolves. Some works (Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly in specific comes to mind) present traditional banes like hawthorn, silver, and garlic as causing reactions similar to allergies; a vampire who even handles them breaks out in a rash, or has skin and flesh burn. At the very least banes generally prevent a supernatural creature from healing damage it would ordinarily shake off. I can attest that an allergy-aggravated immune system does not heal well, no.

Do your monsters and heroes have allergies? Can they build up a tolerance, or make a misstep and suddenly have life-threatening reactions? What do they do to make their lives easier, or less miserable, or even just simply survivable? If you’re a vampire hunting other vampires, it’d be useful to have enough tolerance of hawthorn to drive home a stake… or maybe you need the industrial-strength rubber gloves, and have to dispose of them with every kill. Eep.

This post brought to you courtesy of (checks calendar, sighs) mold and oak pollen season. (Aaaaa-choo!)


32 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: A Sneeze Away

  1. :sympathies:

    From trying to write it– no super immune system, just very healthy character with genetically engineered ancestors, to the tune of “why not?” rather than “useful”– making the allergy work in story without being super unpleasant to read is a problem.
    I went with the standard “sneezing, watery eyes” option and have him mention that it’s not like it’s a BAD allergy.

    Oooh! But this gives me a reason that there’s doctors, when there are also nearly-magical healing vats. The immune system has to be hacked to fix that, plus stuff like eyes that don’t focus.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I feel like something like “allergies” works a lot better in a visual medium than a written one. In something like a movie, you can have a character sneezing whenever they’re outside or wiping at watery eyes and all your need is one line of dialogue that it’s “x allergy” and largely be done. The representation of it won’t bog the story down too much, it’s just visually “there” on-screen.

      With writing, devoting extra words/page space to something like that just bogs the story down. Especially if the allergy isn’t important for plot reasons.


      1. Oooh, this just triggered an idea…..

        K. Started with this pod of reasons, mostly that having this character allergic to unicorns is a hilarious way to build background. He’s a big flirt who is an absolute sucker for cute, fluffy and/or helpless, especially if they need trouble. He’s from an area that has a lot of created species, too–entire planets worth. And I’d already dropped a line about unicorn farms, and him being a virgin, and there being a market for things like felt unicorn stuffies.

        But…if you’re making a unicorn, you’d probably make it hypoallergenic. Especially if you’re cashing in on tourist stuff and/or making a symbol for your region.

        What’s the other thing that people try to make sure the immune system ignores?

        …I finally have the reason that my highest ranking security officer, and the only other person that has gone into Highly Suspicious Area, can’t seem to recover!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. If I had a nearly-magical healing vats, I would be curious about how I know it works.

      Standard high tech worldbuilding, you have a machine that builds vats, and maybe you have another machine that builds test kits.

      REalistically, iterating through the design space would be a lot of work, requiring a lot of information. ‘Grimdark’ realistically, you would expect that the design effort would hit some sort of diminishing returns point, and that there would be edge cases not covered.

      So, in addition to wanting doctors in order to maintain the knowledge base to verify vat function, you would want them for edge cases.

      Thanks for the fun thought.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m aiming for less nuts and bolts function angle, but there’s definite levels of quality, they generally are installed on ships or someplace else with good power supply, they are not fast but they can at least manage “keep you not dead” for major wounds, and they gave an excuse why someone would be basically bored out of his skull for weeks on end. (regrowing an arm)

        It also lets me have things be much less grim-dark because if you can get someone to a vat, you may not be able to fix them but you can keep them from dying. Which also lets me have human time capsules…. and scifi movie type “guy floating in a vat.”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. *snaps fingers* Bacta tanks in Star Wars. One of the Wraiths from Wraith Squadron – Ton Phannon – was allergic to Bacta, the quick-heal juice they used to save Luke’s life in *The Empire Strikes Back* after his encounter with the Wampa ice monster. As a result, any time Ton was injured, he had to have surgery, and since his injuries were *always* severe he ended up a cyborg. He never could find love with a woman because of that, which he knew despite trying for a while despite his prosthetics.

        If you haven’t read Aaron Allston’s Wraith Squadron books, please make the time to do so. They are *fantastic*!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve had similar thoughts about enhanced healing.
    Wouldn’t they be more likely to get cancer? Because cancer is when the cells mutates to grow too much. When your body can heal a cut in seconds, your cells must already have a high regeneration rate.

    It leads to the question of is character X a superhero/Adventurer because they need a certain amount of damage to control where things regenerate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would depend _very_ much on “by what mechanics do the healing magics work?” Yes, it’s quite easy to design a setting where magical healing runs the risk of causing cancer (if, for example, the magic works by “speeding up the natural biological processes unnaturally, including cell division/etc”, cancer would make sense as a “it worked too well, which messes things up”). On the other hand, it’s equally easy to design a setting where magical healing can’t possibly cause cancer (if, for example, the healing works by “restoring the body towards its ideal healthy state”, then cancer would _not_ be a reasonable failure mode, tho something like “making them into a child again” might). And that’s just the two most obvious of the _basic_ options available. Others I’ve seen involve things like pure conceptual “it heals”, or more “clarkian” magic where “loads from a save-state” or something.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. This. Designing a system where the magic used in healing magic causes problems in some way is totally on the author. And kinda says something about the logic behind *why* the author needs healing magic in the setting or not.

        I find a lot of the times it’s the idea of “magic isn’t free” and them wanting to have non-magical healing still be needed for some reason. But it’s very possible to do that too without having to go to “healing magic can be actually harmful if it’s used too much” levels.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Most of the times I’ve seen “healing magic is secretly harmful” has actually been for an even worse reason: either for “fantasy/magic is _dumb_, only Science(tm) is smart, and can figure out the really obvious flaws in magical solutions, because Science is Better(tm)”, or for “magic has to work in a way that the author can understand, and the author read the wrong books previously and now thinks this is the only reasonable way magic can work”…

        Liked by 3 people

  3. It also makes me wonder about the other side.

    I recently read a transmigration novel where the the modern protagonist diagnoses a child with an allergy to eggs. (They actually do a decent mini-study with a dozen servants to demonstrate that allergies are a thing.)

    The key here was that the concept of an allergy was almost completely unknown.
    The basic assumption was that any poison would hit everybody equally (also incorrect) and therefore he was faking or mentally unsound.

    It occurred to me to wonder, did ancient civilizations have any concept of an allergy?
    Even in the sense “some people can’t eat certain foods that other people are fine with.”

    One possibility is that so many children were dying from everything that the fact that they died from a specific food might’ve gotten lost in shuffle.

    Another possibility is that the children were exposed to so many germs that their immune systems were beaten into submission and had no time to focus on trivialities.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not just allergies that some scientists think are a reaction to not being infected with worms, it’s also some kinds of auto-immune diseases. There’s a pattern where regions of the world where worms have been eradicated *also* have the highest percentage of people with auto-immune diseases and allergies.

        One of the things they notice in Africa is that when people are de-wormed en masse, the amount of people who have auto-immune diseases and allergies begins up-ticking at an odd rate in people who didn’t have the auto-immune diseases and allergies (but *did* have worms) once the worms were removed.

        So… scientists have done clinical trials on what the heck having worms in people’s systems actually *did* to the immune system and it turned out that what the worm “produces” (think of it as the worm’s vomit) calms down the part of the immune system that goes after the parasite. Which… has been known to be a part of the immune system that can attack the body (aka case an auto-immune response).

        Realizing that “huh, there’s an outside source of ‘calm immune system down’ that is no longer in a lot of people” is a good thing to know when it comes to researching why so many people’s immune systems are seemingly scrambling for something to attack… to the point their body is being attacked instead.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Short answer:

      To all of the questions. 😀

      It was known that some people just couldn’t eat some things (and even some folk-medicine level ‘try not eating this’ things, from writings we’ve found, I think that was discovered via the Highly Scientific folks tossing out all that nonsense from Old Wive’s Tales) — with it being so hard to survive to adulthood, you didn’t have a very big sample of people who had allergies, much less *bad* allergies, and if they got worse…well, you died.

      And there is a known correlation between your immune system being under-exercised and it FINDING something to be upset about.

      The most famous example of “we have no idea why these kids are sick” (with a happy ending!) was the infamous ward full of kids in… WWI?.. with celiac disease who relapsed *after* the starvation rations ended, because the “just try to keep everyone alive” rations didn’t have wheat but the rescuers brought in bread.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Anybody who can’t handle the staple foods in a situation where there just isn’t much alternative… 😦

        For healing/immune superpowers that aren’t deliberately set up to be “blessed with suck,” I admit I tend to assume the enhancement somehow includes improved threat assessment.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. “And there is a known correlation between your immune system being under-exercised and it FINDING something to be upset about.”

        It’s not just your immune system. It’s also things like your gut enzymes that work on a similar principle. Only the case of your guy enzymes, they’ll stop being produced.

        One of the things I learned while working next to a goat milk seller at a farmer’s market is that goat milk and cow milk need different enzymes to be digested. If you switch cold turkey from one to the other, you’ll have a bad time because you’ve given your stomach no time to start pre-producing the enzyme of the new milk you want to drink. Instead, it’s best to slowly introduce the new milk over the course of a few weeks

        Same thing happens in reverse if you stop having certain kinds of food for long enough. Your body isn’t going to make enzymes for things you’re not eating at all; that costs it energy.

        TLDR: your body only has so much energy to go around, if it can turn something off because it’s not being used, it will. If it *can’t* turn it off (like your immune system) and that system isn’t being used, that system will often find a use for itself even if it’s not in your body’s best interest.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. And sometimes, you can’t start back up– we know this with cow’s milk, for those that don’t have the mutation.
        What about the folks who grew up eating wheat just fine, but after going gluten free for a year, find they can’t eat it anymore?

        Liked by 3 people

      4. *nods*
        We know that some people can’t handle milk without having the gap in time, too– and even that some babies can’t handle it. (speaking of allergies that you can’t survive before modern times)

        I do sometimes get tired of the way some doctors act like there’s only one cause for symptoms, I swear!
        (skips rant of “diseases” that are literally “state the symptom, in Latin” being treated like they’re a single very stable virus or something)

        Liked by 4 people

  4. Huh, might be an interesting reason why the big, scary, bio-engineered superhumans are working for the Doomsday Organization or the Corrupt Government. “Sure, you can leave any time, but these treatments you need so that your super-immune system doesn’t reduce your body to a puddle of red super-goo? Yeah those are for employees only”

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Personally I think that werewolves would probably be super allergic to mold or have the worst hay fever. Super sniffers come with super consequences, and if my *dog* has hay fever, then there’s no reason animal shapeshifters wouldn’t have similar issues. Of course I wonder if they wouldn’t also develop food allergies to things like chocolate, garlic, onions, grapes…all the things their animal body shouldn’t eat also moving over to can’t eat this while human shaped.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The dirty little secret about canine food intolerance is that lots of dogs can digest that stuff, or they have to eat 500 tons to be affected. Vets are pushing the idea that no dog should eat X and Y, because they don’t want to see any dog dying from these things. But the truth is more complicated.

      What would be more useful would be genetic studies of different breeds, to find out which dogs should stay away from which stuff.

      There is an online dog weight calculator for dangerous levels of theobromine, and I think it turned out that a 150 pound dog had to eat about 20 pounds of chocolate to get sick. (Maybe not that bad, but something big.) Given that my mom’s childhood basset hound legendarily ate the entire contents of a two pound box of chocolates, without even having a tummy upset, obviously tolerances do vary.

      So yeah, a werewolf that weighed as much as a human man would not be in much danger. A were-chihuahua might be.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Same for one of my grandparents’ dogs. Jenny ate 20 lbs of chocolate in one sitting. Granted, gram kept on feeding her chocolate often,”because she likes it”🤦🏻. Mom apparently was pissed at gram for doing so, because that dog was fat and had bioweapon flatulence. Often. Never met the dog, but she was a canine Hoover.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. A super immune system can also have other problems. If it’s good enough to beat back parasites and cancer, it’s also going to decrease fertility and increase the chances of miscarriage.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I’m recall a short story I read in Analog.

    Human explorer walks into a bar nursing a minor cold. Place is kind of a cross roads of various species travel and the bar has a species he never saw before. Turns out that species had a huge empire that controlled that area of space, up to 50,000 years ago. Then they fell into a massive civil war and were just getting back into interstellar travel and meeting all the species that grew up in their absence.

    So the human wanders over to strike up a conversation. The, let’s call him Imperial since I can’t remember the given species name, didn’t recognize humans either. After a bit of talking, checking some star charts, and adjusting them for tens of thousands of year of stellar drift the Imperial finds Earth in his database. And says Humans shouldn’t exist.

    Turns out the Imperials surveyed Earth when Humanity was still wandering hunter-gatherers. Whom rather objected to the Imperials ‘collecting samples’ of some of the members of the tribe. Enough to pry one of the Imperials out of his exploration suit, kill him, and be a good way to roasting him when the rest found this and dropped an airstrike on the tribe.

    Deciding that a species so inventive with just stone tools was not something they wanted to see develop a technological culture, and being a survey team that didn’t want to drop a KT rock because it was really a prime colony world if not for the natives? The Imperials seeded a bioweapon. A respiratory plague that was species specific and fast mutating so the human immune system would never successfully develop an immunity to it. They’d drop by in a few more centuries to check up on what should be then an unihabited prime colony world candidate. Their civil war however kicked in before they could do so.

    While pondering this the human explorer sneezed. And had a dawning realization when the Imperial said “That noise did not translate, what does it mean?” The explorer decided he needed another drink before explaining that their ‘plague’ was known to Humanity as the common cold.

    Liked by 4 people

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