I'm still on holiday, monitoring a host of warnings from the UN and other interested parties, and want to post a warning of my own: At all costs, avoid Pandemic, a new novel by emergency-room doctor Daniel Kalla.
It's a routine thriller, riding on current anxieties about SARS and avian flu, and Kalla knows enough about influenza to make much of it sound credible. He posits a flu-based disease called Acute Respiratory Collapse Syndrome (ARCS), and even locates the index case in China. The story has the potential, therefore, to portray the likely progress of a genuine pandemic.
Unfortunately, Pandemic immediately comes down with Acute Literary Collapse Syndrome.
Admittedly, few first novels are successes--least of all when written by people who specialize in some other profession. They can lean on their expertise to create some level of plausibility, but everything else is likely to show the errors of the novice. That's certainly the case here: the characters are flimsy and cliched, the plot as full of holes as a screen door. Again and again Kalla tells us instead of showing us, so the story lurches ahead by exposition rather than action.
I could forgive these errors, but not the story itself. Rather than deal with the real issues of a real pandemic, Kalla has to drag in a bioterrorism angle: The new disease is deliberately retrieved from China (by suicidal Malaysian Islamists who suck blood from a victim) and put at the service of an Egyptian media mogul who wants to teach the infidels a thing or two.
So the story rapidly degenerates into snippets about yet more suicidal terrorists,hacking their lungs out in the elevator of a posh London hotel and other high-traffic venues (including Vancouver, thank you very much). Meanwhile various scientists race around the world trying to stop the pandemic from breaking out, while also agonizing over failed marriages. Mutated viruses and super-antidotes pop up with blinding speed.
In other words, the threat of pandemic is not the pandemic itself, but evil Muslims. This attitude appears to be almost a default response to serious epidemics: US media during 1918 were blaming German agents (slipped into the country by U-boat) for the Spanish flu, and during the Black Death many communities slaughtered their local Jews as suspected promoters of the plague.
To the extent that readers of Pandemic find it credible, then, they will come away with a grossly mistaken view of what our current problem is. The novel's big question is: Can upstanding white Westerners, equipped with big scientific labs and lots of soldiers, thwart the brown-skinned terrorists who will be behind the next pandemic?
The actual effect of the ARCS pandemic is almost invisible. We see some of the main characters threatened with it, and we see some patients suffering from it, but the worldwide impact is offstage, something to be talked about by the folks in the White House Situation Room. Another dangerous message: Our rulers will Take Care of Things, and how they do so is more important and interesting than how we peasants actually cope with those things. Worse yet, when the evil terrorists are killed and the pandemic contained, no one worries about the next one.
This is junk fiction not only because it's badly written, but because its politics are stupid and short-sighted. Bioterrorism may indeed pose a threat, but that too deserves a serious fictional treatment instead of this graphically challenged comic book. As many of us have just seen with CanadaSue's vision of avian flu in Kingston, Ontario, the impact of a real flu pandemic will be a brutal challenge to us--logistically, politically, and morally. By distracting readers from the real issues, Pandemic and similar melodramas will only make matters worse when the genuine pandemic eventually arrives.