Where are all the science fiction books about plagues and bioterror? There's been a huge surge in deadly-disease books in non-SF genres since 9/11 — from non-fiction books like Hot Zone to medical thrillers like Leonard Goldberg's Fever Cell to literary works like Thomas Mullen's The Last Town On Earth. But the disease-paranoia wave has mostly passed science fiction by. How come? We asked Barth Anderson, author of science-fiction disease book The Patron Saint of Plagues.
Patron Saint of Plagues takes place 55 years in the future, when factory-farming has left the U.S. a barren third-world country, and Mexico has become the regional superpower thanks to its telepathic wetware in people's brains. But a deadly virus starts killing tons of people in Ascension, formerly known as Mexico City. Crack disease hunter Henry David Stark, from the Centers for Disease Control gets smuggled into the country to try and find a cure, but discovers the virus is human-made.
Here's what Barth Anderson had to say in response to our searching plague questions:
With terrorism scares, anthrax and bird flu, among other things, it totally makes sense that people are writing books on these topics. Where's the action at, if not in science fiction?
I think the real increase has actually been in non-fiction and the medical thriller genres, more than in sf. I can only go on hunches here — I don't have data or best-seller lists to refer to. But the sheer number of nonfiction books about the Epidemic Intelligence Services, CDC, avian flu, outbreaks historical and present, etc, dwarfs the entire sf genre.
What about bioterror? Where are all the bioterror books?
It's the thriller side that's been working that angle far harder since 9/11 (Earl Merkel, Leonard Goldberg, Peter Clement, and lots of others). There may be sf examples, but if there's an actual groundswell outside the recent outbreak of zombie movies, I haven't seen it.
Is science fiction just not suited to writing about bioterror or epidemics? Or are SF readers just not interested?
I think SF readers need more than a pandemic's horror value or the personal gross-out of a really crazy disease to scratch the SF itch. And when big book in this subject matter comes along, it's typically not the epidemiologist-as-sleuth approach because that doesn't necessarily appeal to sf readers. Nancy Kress, Mark Budz, and the ol' cyberpunks all worked the viral angle, but not solely on a bioterroristic level. Greg Bear uses the "outbreak" scenario to Clarkian effect in Darwin's Radio — it's not really a CDC story, after all.
So when you say SF readers need something more than just "a pandemic's horror," what do you mean? What else are they looking for?
SF fans do seem to want something more than just the facts of the outbreak — they want the big idea of how an epidemic impacts generations after on a cultural level, or a deeper alteration. Outbreak/virus junkies want the horror of considering an outbreak and a sleuth to solve the mystery. I think this is why nonfiction stories mix with fiction for these readers — sometimes you need a true story to scratch that horror-itch effectively.
Could there be a story about a pandemic that's so weird or otherworldly that it becomes an SF concept by default?
Definitely. Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio fits the bill of what you're talking about. What seems to be a viral outbreak (and, by default, an epidemiological thriller) turns out not to be a disease at all, per se, but "junk DNA" from the virus in question spurring evolution forward. Very sf, while using the readers' expectations of the viral procedural against them.
In Patron Saint of Plagues, I was deliberately taking the opposite tack from Bear. He twisted the viral thriller for sf pay-off. I was writing sf for Hot Zone readers and viral thriller pay-off. I was trying to reach out to those folks who loved Hot Zone and Coming Plague and might fancy a spot of speculation about how outbreaks would be handled in the future. Those tend to be the readers I hear from who loved the book. Doctors and medical technicians. I had an epidemiologist email me telling me a I nailed it, asking where I interned. When I told him that I didn't have a medical background, that I was a science fiction writer, he stopped corresponding.
So your sense is there's not much overlap between serious science fiction readers and the sort of people who eat up medical thrillers? Do you think it's possible to bridge the two audiences?
No, I don't think there's a lot of overlap except for the obvious examples. I think medical thrillers are written for scientist and us hypochondriacs, not core sf audiences. We don't see Robin Cook on too many "year's best in sf" lists, despite the equal parts science and fiction. I think that's because the hardcore "speculation" just isn't there.
But yes, I think it's possible to bridge the gap. I tried it in Patron Saint of Plagues, and I got good reviews from both Paul DiFilipo and Salon.com. The School of Microbiology at the University of Manitoba picked it as one of its top ten microbiology novels in 2005 and Locus liked it too.
Besides 9/11, what's behind our current fascination with diseases spiraling out of control?
Viruses are definitely a cultural fear right now and the popular interest is keen. What's behind it? Globalization? Sure. In that globalization — from stirring up the rain forests to global travel — simply makes pandemics more possible, and pandemics are in the news, yeah, it's definitely a latter-day-Capitalism zeitgest. AIDS has fanned across the planet already. We're already IN a pandemic, so that's a 20-year-old fear-driver right there. The book Hot Zone was about ebola coming to the US in monkeys and how close we came to an outbreak here in '89. SARS went from Asia to Toronto in a heart beat. Whether you buy into avian flu phobia or not (I do), the doom-message is constant and drives public interest and policy. But again, I think it drives people toward non-fiction and more "realistic" thrillers than sf.