A reader tweeted me an interesting question yesterday: "If you wrote pandemic fiction (not zombie!) which virus would you use to disrupt society/high cfr?"
Well, first of all I'd consider what other pandemic novelists had done, which has generally been to ignore the specific agent and to focus on maximum social disorder and collapse. Jack London's The Scarlet Plague is an example; so is George R. Stewart's classic Earth Abides. Both deal more with the aftermath of a pandemic than the pandemic itself (and both, coincidentally, portray the return of barbarism to the San Francisco Bay Area).
Throwing a specific virus into such a story really has only one purpose: to establish verisimilitude, to give readers an enjoyably creepy sense that if it happens, this is how it will happen and this particular bug will make it happen. But from the novelist's point of view, the virus has to serve the plot, rather than the other way around.
Therefore a brand-new virus, or a "mutated" form of a known one, is the bug of choice for most writers. That's because the novelist wants to maximize the carnage, also known as case fatality ratio.
So we need a new virus to which we have no immunity (that's what makes H5N1 and its cousins still attractive). It should transmit by air or contact (pneumonic plague). It should have a long incubation time, but be contagious well before the patient feels ill. That way people can sit in an airport shedding viruses for a day or so, infecting as many other travellers as possible.
To induce maximum creepiness, the symptoms should be spectacularly messy, like Ebola. (The best moment in the movie Contagion is the scene when the guy doing the post-mortem on Gwyneth Paltrow cuts open her skull, looks inside, and says, "My God. Call everybody.")
The point of the virus, apart from being plausible to a readership largely ignorant of virology, is to stress the social institutions trying to deal with it. In this respect, the virus is just the McGuffin, the plot device that sets events in motion: like General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, the virus tests our fail-safe systems so we can see where they might actually fail-fatal.
Novelists with a professional sense of irony should exploit their readers' misplaced anxieties: in advanced societies, we now live to extraordinary ages in a state of extraordinary good health. (I cite myself, now 73, as anecdotal evidence.)
Meanwhile, billions of our contemporaries die of diseases we barely remember, of which the most notable and least dignified is diarrhea. Those deaths go unnoticed by us, like the miseries in refugee camps and emergency shelters all over the planet. The audience for pandemic fiction is precisely the population least at risk of dying from disease: educated, well fed and sheltered, vaccinated, and affluent.
Of course that's precisely why this audience frets about pandemics: It ain't gonna hurt us, but wouldn't it be thrillingly gross if it did? Meanwhile, countless people with compromised immunity and no public health system simply get sick and die; they don't have the leisure or the literacy to titillate themselves about illness and death when those sorrows are all around them.
In the first few years of running this blog, I got a clear sense that many North Americans defined "pandemic" as something like the one in Earth Abides, killing off 95 percent of the population with another 4 percent dying from "secondary kill." Maybe with zombies.
But the worst pandemic we know of was the result of smallpox and measles that the Spanish exported to the Americas with Cortés; some historians estimate that the result was the loss of 90 percent of the original population. Even so, the first Americans are still with us (and the rest of us in the Americas have greatly benefited from that pandemic).
The Black Death of the 14th century may have killed off a quarter of Europe's population. It arguably changed Europe's feudal system, giving peasants and artisans more value because they were now so scarce. But it sure didn't threaten the species, or even the Europeans.
We lost maybe 50 million worldwide in the 1918-19 flu. Maybe it cost the Germans the victory in World War I, but the Russian Communists sailed right through it to 70 years of power (even with World War II and 30 million Soviet deaths in the middle of their reign).
And here we are, comfortably seated before our computers reading about pandemics like cholera (we've been in the seventh cholera pandemic since the early 1990s) and HIV/AIDS (booming since the early 1980s, with 20 years of out-of-town tryouts before that). We may be driving other species to extinction, but we ourselves face no such threat. Hey, if it gets really bad we can always eat each other. Didn't someone make a movie about that?
And that's why I'm not interested in writing a pandemic novel. Apart from being stone-ignorant about the epidemiological premises of a real pandemic, I would do nothing but entertain my readers with what I call a weekend-waster: an entertainingly silly story, begun on Friday, finished by Sunday, and forgotten by Monday morning.
But wouldn't such a novel raise awareness of the threat, creating political pressure to improve public health? In my humble opinion, no. The last novel to make a real political impact was probably Uncle Tom's Cabin, which arguably helped trigger the US Civil War. Even George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four didn't forestall government invasion of our privacy; it only gave us a vocabulary for discussing it when whistleblowers like Edward Snowden gave us the non-fictional truth about it.
When Worldometers tells me that 5.8 million real people have died of communicable diseases this year, and 3.4 million real children under five have died, it seems wilfully stupid to tell stories about fictitious people facing fictitious threats.
So I blog instead of writing stories, and I hope I make real people aware of what is happening to other real people in less fortunate places. Whether that results in political pressure is out of my hands.