I am currently listening to an audiobook entitled Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel which features a super-virus with the sweet sounding name of the Georgia Flu (since patient zero is from Russia). This flu is apparently much worse than the Ebola virus rampaging through West Africa since it is airborne and has a gestation period of only a few hours. In Mandel’s apocalypse, the hospitals fill up exponentially throughout perhaps a few days until things break down completely and it’s all over for everyone but a small percentage of humanity; poor bastards who happen to be immune. Sound familiar? Stephen King’s The Stand begins similarly. But in King’s epic there is a strange force drawing the survivors to a central location somewhere in the US.
Mandel’s story is much different from King’s, though the premise is similar. In fact there are many tragedies of literature that depend on a mighty germ for plot launch. Some are preachy and procedural, like Robin Cook’s Contagion; some have a sci-fi flavor, like Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain; others fall into King’s genre of horror, like The Passage (trilogy) by Justin Cronin, in which a covert government biological experiment goes horribly wrong, producing a race of vampiric beings. We can lump Brooks’s World War Z and Matheson’s I am Legend into that category too. The story of the killer virus runs the gamut of literary style: from Atwood’s dystopian Oryx and Crake, to the magical realism of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, to the existential strains of The Plague by Camus.
Over the years, the identity of the killer virus invading not only literature but a variety of media, has vacillated from Black Plague– which makes an appearance in Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and Bergmann’s classic film The Seventh Seal– to White Plague, more commonly known as Tuberculosis– which rears its ugly head in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, dominates the riffing vocals of Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets and threatens a pandemic in LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener. Recently, its face has changed to that of lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in Philadelphia or Wade Mayfield (use your imagination) in Reynolds Price’s The Promise of Rest (a heartbreaking threnody to a young man and his family savaged by the AIDS virus) or the Dallas Buyers Club president Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey). All of the above examples of course are stories starring real bugs, which perhaps makes them the most terrifying.
Nowadays, the practice of vaccination has controlled the spread of bugs like Influenza, cholera, and malaria to name a few. But resistant strains are still a huge threat as evidenced by scares like the Avian flu and the current Ebola outbreak. Fictionalization of these biological butchers in some cases allow readers to cheer on the heroes as they defeat the germ metaphors; i.e. vampires, zombies, etc…, or they examine the human toll: courage in the grip of death, coping with loss, adapting to disruption of routine life. Thankfully, Emily St. John Mandel has a larger tale to tell, larger than that of a super microbe with a saccharine sobriquet. It’s a tale of survival; of the balance of humanity; of the uncertain future. Because in the end, all that’s left after we’ve torn open Pandora’s box, is hope.