Fact is frequently stranger than fiction, and more frightening. The recent outbreak of Ebola in parts of Africa–and the frightened posts and live-tweets that accompanied two infected health workers as they returned to the US–give us a glimpse not only of an epidemic’s power but of our private terrors. Self-preservation, fear of the unknown, and a desire to protect the boundaries of nations, persons, bodies and cells brings out the best and worst in us. History provides both sides; the uninfected locked up with the infected in 14th century plague houses, left to starve and suffer in the dark–or doctors like Cleveland’s Horace Ackley, who personally combated and contained an outbreak of Asiatic cholera in Sandusky in 1849. In the middle of the contest, we find the patient, caught between doctors and systems and, in our modern world as much as the historical one, political machinations.
We’ve seen this theme play out in fiction as well as the headlines; from zombies and vampires to the latest outbreak films, we watch as health workers put themselves in danger, entering areas others are fleeing; meanwhile, those in the safety of buffer zones seek to keep the dangers out, even, at times to the sacrifice of humanity.
The Atlantis Plague by A. G. Riddle
One of the top medical-mystery novels in the Amazon hopper these days is THE ATLANTIS PLAGUE. In Marbella, Spain, Dr. Kate Warner awakens to a horrifying reality: the human race stands on the brink of extinction. A pandemic unlike any before it has swept the globe. Nearly a billion people are dead–and those the Atlantis Plague doesn’t kill, it transforms at the genetic level. A few rapidly evolve. The remainder devolve.
As the world slips into chaos, radical solutions emerge. Industrialized nations offer a miracle drug, Orchid, which they mass produce and distribute to refugee camps around the world. But Orchid is merely a way to buy time. It treats the symptoms of the plague but never cures the disease. Immari International offers a different approach: do nothing. Let the plague run its course. The Immari envision a world populated by the genetically superior survivors–a new human race, ready to fulfill its destiny.
I AM LEGEND
Along similar lines, we have the 1954 novel I am Legend, made popular by the recent movie with Will Smith. The plot of the novel revolves around a similarly mutating plague–one that seems to have wiped out mankind. Almost.
Robert Neville may well be the last living man on Earth . . . but he is not alone. An incurable plague has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him. Vampires? Zombies? Not entirely. By day, he is a hunter, stalking the infected monstrosities through the abandoned ruins of civilization. The novel offers us an unusual twist, however; if everyone else has evolved to be other–and you alone hunt and kill–who is actually the monster?
The Dragon and the Needle by Hugh Franks
The Dragon and the Needle takes a different approach and explores Eastern and Western medicine and politics. A mysterious syndrome is striking down political leaders across the Western world. Named Extraordinary Natural Death Syndrome, or ENDS, it has baffled medical experts. The Western prejudice against the mysteries of Oriental medicine, and the growing acceptance of acupuncture as an effective method of treatment, are just two of the contrasting approaches explored in the story, and once again we have to ask: who do we villainize? Who do we see as enemy, as other? The story follows a young British doctor, Mike, and an Asian American acupuncturist, Eleanor; but if they are correct in their assumptions, the implications are almost too shocking to be believed. When the secrets of The Dragon and the Needle are revealed, where will our loyalties ultimately lie?
In fiction and in fact, what does it mean to be “other”? This term represents the moving target that defines policies in the wake of outbreak. Consider, for instance, the infected health workers. Despite assurances that they represent no threat, and despite the high tech treatment facility in Atlanta, many still railed against their return. CNN carried an article earlier this week, citing twitter hashtags that read “The road to hell was paved with good intentions.”  Many feel the aid workers should be left in Africa–they might be citizens, but, through disease, they have been “othered.” Dr. Bruce Ribner, who heads the center at Emory, countered that sentiment by reminding us that the doctors risked first–treating the ill with humanity and integrity. Fiction sometimes provides the best expression of our fears, as well as a proving ground for our better natures. When disease strikes, we hope our protagonists will remain human in all senses of the word.
May we go and do likewise.