I can well imagine what my editor would say if I'd submitted a thriller in progress: a manuscript sample covering the Ebola outbreak so far.
"We've got some great stuff here," she'd start diplomatically. "Scary disease, selfless doctors giving their lives, NGOs working flat out, suspected cases turning up everywhere from Stockholm to Mumbai, the UN grinding into action. Love it. Really makes me keep turning the pages."
"But?" I'd say, as a veteran of these conferences.
"But...a lot of your characters have motivation problems. They're behaving like plot points, not like rational human beings."
"Uh, for example?"
"Lots of them, Crof. Look, the disease is rampaging through West Africa, but a lot of people still don't believe it? That's just crazy. And OK, they're backwoods types, but how about this Patrick Sawyer you bring in and kill off? He knows he's been exposed to Ebola, he's starting to feel sick, and he still gets on that plane to Lagos? And his colleagues there try to get him out of the hospital, and they're all educated senior bureaucrats with ECOWAS? And your Dr. Adadevoh has to physically restrain the guy, and that's how she contracts it and dies too? (You know, if you revised this bit, she could make a hell of a good character right through the story.)
"Well, that's really hard to buy, and it's there just so you can get Ebola into a teeming city of 21 million people. Which is a great idea, but we need a believable person. Like a doctor is taking samples for testing, and gets mugged and his suitcase with the samples is stolen? And how about he's going to Washington, not to Lagos?"
"But that's not all. Half the people you describe must be nuts. They riot against the Ebola clinics, they desert the hospitals and go to traditional healers, they hide from the medical teams, and then you've got another ECOWAS dude who escapes to Port Harcourt and his doctor knows he's got it and gets it too? How does this make sense?"
By now I'm trying not to be defensive. "Well, these folks are under stress, and some of them crack and some of them don't. Hey, how about Dr. Khan—he must be crazy too, to risk his life, but he does it and loses it and he's a hero."
"There's another point," my editor sighs. "You're killing off your most promising characters. Khan and Adadevoh, wow, great chemistry between the unassuming virologist with the big smile and the tough boss-lady doctor as they figure out how to beat the epidemic together. How does that sound?"
"I'll think about it."
"Please do. And here's another thought. You're kind of going on and on, and it's one damn thing after another, and we're not sure even this far into the story what's at stake. And that's—"
"That's what we have to show the reader in the first chapter," I finish her sentence.
"Right. So how about this. Let's condense the story so far into three, four vignettes, showing the disease making its way from the backwoods to Liberia, say. And then it infects this American doctor, and he's flown back to the US and pumped full of this drug you've invented, ZMapp? And he's saved, but some of the people looking after him in Atlanta start coming down with it."
My editor starts lighting up. "So now it's spreading right from Atlanta International, and the doctor, this—"
"Great hero's name. So make him the hero, not just a walk-on part, and he recovers, and since he's got the most direct experience with the disease, the CDC puts him in charge of the campaign to stamp it out before it gets really serious."
"You mean before it gets serious in the US."
"Uh-huh. What do you think? Now we're talking mega-sales, and I can see Brad Pitt as Dr. Brantly."
"Well, as I said, I'll ... think about it. Uh, as long as I'm here, could I pitch you on an idea I've got for a swords and sorcerers fantasy?"
Mercifully, I'm out of the novel industry and will never face a story conference again. But my editor's criticisms are still valid. People really have behaved irrationally and thereby spread the disease. In some cases their behaviour may have been affected by the disease itself, which sometimes produces irrational actions and speech. In other cases, fear has been tied up with alienation from the governing elites, resulting in mistrust of all outsiders.
We ourselves are as locked into our cultural responses as anyone else in the world, and we're only gradually understanding how little we understand about the people we're trying to help. It's aggravated by the western bias against poverty in general and poor black people in particular, especially when they live in an obscure region of little economic or strategic value to us.
This outbreak holds our attention, if at all, only because the numbers keep growing and people are indeed turning up all over the world with suspicious symptoms. It will probably require something like a serious outbreak in the US or Europe to distract us from Ukraine or Scottish independence or whatever the local threat may be.
Working within the constraints of our culture, Dr. Joanne Liu of MSF today did her considerable best to alert us; she called on the whole world to get involved, and quit relying on volunteers and saints to fight Ebola. If we wait until the enemy lands in force on our own shores, we'll be behaving as irrationally as the Kenema rioters and poor Patrick Sawyer, denying reality until it's too late.