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Pandemic: A Bogeyman For All Seasons by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial  ISBN/ITEM#: 0905ELPABFAS
Date: 01 June 2009 /

Pandemic, plague and pestilence have a rich history in SF as well as a bright future. Ern looks at what makes this particular horseman of the apocalypse so darn infectious.

In stores I see pocket sized Lysol® canisters and hand sanitizers at the checkouts. On the news the mortality count for the recent Swine Flue (H1N1) virus has been pushed to the back page, or whatever equivalent new media has, though the affected population has climbed into the tens of thousands worldwide, though the death toll has barely made it into the hundreds.

Once again, we appear to have spun the barrel in the pandemic version of Russian roulette and walked away from another round. But we're edgy.

As I'm sure I've noted before, SF is as much a reflection of the present as it is a prognosticator of the future, and of course, a lot of SF takes place "fifteen minutes" from now anyway, so it's not surprising that I'm seeing the same signs in a lot of fiction that I'm seeing in real life.

Robert Sawyer's WWW: Wake features two out of three of the current hotlist for apocalypse: the shutdown of cyber access by the Chinese government, though not as an act of war, but as part of their response to a deadly strain of Avian flu. I just knocked off a quick mil-fic read, Black Storm by David Poyer, in which a covert team goes into Bagdad just before Desert Storm to wipe out Saddam's Bio-WMD lab, where they were breeding smallpox. In Jonathan Mayberrry's Patient Zero we manage to combine two favorites, weaponized plague and zombies. Interestingly, William Forschten's One Second After didn't pick up on plague as a major factor in an America deprived of all virtually all technology…we were too busy starving to death or fighting over scarce resources.

But SF didn't just discover disease, and it hasn't always been a bad thing. In H.G. Well's War of the Worlds, as you no doubt remember, the aliens are stopped by Earths smallest warriors, cold germs. In Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters the good guys (that's us) weaponize a virus to kill off the parasites that have taken over whole cities in the US.

Disease as a Pandora's box device is very popular too, and my favorite example is Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. We manage to find an alien virus and bring it home…only to find we can't contain it. Fortunately, we again find that the Earth does not abide invaders, and this time it's the (acidic) rain that wipes the organism out. More or less.

Pandemic isn't the only big threat society faces at the moment, so why does it seem to get so much coverage? What about nuclear weapons in the hands of non-state actors? Cyber warfare against the global infostructure? Climate change with violent storms and sea level rise?

Well, they've all been done, and done well, by the cyberpunk authors two decades ago. Gibson's Neuromancer never shows it, but often reflects back on a cyber-attack on Russia staged from ultralights. Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather is a lot more fun that the lightweight movie Twister which covers the same themes, but without the cautionary element. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain and the other books in his weather trilogy, and the bad movie that channeled the same fears which came out at at the same time (The Day After Tomorrow) took a serious look at climate change…but nobody much cared.

In fact, nobody much cares about any of the big threat's that face us. Or, to put it more accurately, nobody cares to do more than follow the advice on a British poster from WWII, "Keep calm and carry on".

Pandemic, however is personal, and we get it.

Few of us have ever been exposed to nuclear warfare, and climate change is a bit like the frog in the pot of boiling water. If you raise the temperature slowly enough, the frog will cook to death before it realizes it's getting too hot. You'd think that economic meltdown would make it to the top of the worry charts, but it's not a winner for a two reasons. One, wishful thinking really does help keep it at bay, and two…nobody has a clue about how to avoid it. If the world monetary system collapses, the world will change in ways that have as much impact and as little predictability as the singularity. Also, with the exception of economic collapse, while these threats may be fatal to those they hit, their impact tends to be highly localized.

Terrorists may nuke a city, but it's (mostly) not catching. Hurricanes and Tornadoes may level a town, but we can more or less see them coming and get out of the way. Global economic meltdown is a bugger, but we're pretty much stuck with the risks. Keep calm and carry on turns out to be the right thing to do.

But pandemic. That's something that we can relate to. We've all been sick, or known others who have been, and though the world hasn't seen a deadly outbreak since the 1917 flu epidemic, we get the idea. The recent H1N1 scare, still actually ongoing, came on suddenly and immediately affected us.

But there's another reason why this particular threat has traction.

We're not helpless against it. Good personal hygiene, avoiding public spaces during outbreaks, early treatment…all these have real value in increasing survival rates. We've all been ill, but we're all descended from survivors of illness. That's has an interesting resonance for us. Not only do we stand a chance of living through whatever may come, we know that somewhere back in time, our ancestors, already have. We come from a long line of survivors, and while there are no guarantees, we've got a fighting chance.

All of which makes plague, pestilence, and pandemic terrific ground for writers to sow their seeds on. They're disruptive to social order, affect society and the individual in different ways. Are both random and ordered on different levels, and once they can be made to linger or depart as the author wills it. They're fun to write about the coming and going of…and a terrific way to winnow the stage of actors before the play begins.

Science fiction loves a cautionary tale, and I expect that this germy genre will continue to grow, mutate, and jump across species boundaries…as long as there are readers who can remember having a runny nose.

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