Our culture is currently preoccupied with the onslaught of the Apocalypse , considering the ever-present crises of hunger, overpopulation, war, and disease. The paranoia of disease produced swine flu fever in 2009 (see the hilarious SNL sketch http://www.hulu.com/watch/107503), as well as the Zombie subgenre, and gave us films and TV shows like The Walking Dead, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Contagion. While zombies are a symptom of our very real fear of diseases and information overload—they represent the loosely-guised metaphor of civilization’s death by pandemic.
This paranoia is not unfounded. Aside from the horrors of AIDS, malaria, and the occasional panics over bird and swine flu, there hasn’t been a global highly-contagious pandemic since the Spanish Flu in 1918—we are long overdue. Because today’s world is much more globalized than the world of 1918, the next plague has the potential to be horrific.
Many authors have tapped into this paranoia, producing some truly astounding works of fiction and—um—non-fiction.
Here are 5 books about diseases which may or may not make you sleep better at night. Some are silly, fun, and escapist. Others are profoundly disquieting. Either way—they’ll “infect” your head and make you want to read more.
5. 12.21, Dustin Thomason, 2012
12.21 came out last year, but the novel is already dated. How? Well, the premise is that a Mayan disease becomes a pandemic in Los Angeles on 12/21/2012, coinciding with the end of the Mayan Calendar’s “Long Count.” While this is patently ridiculous, at least the disease is scary—a disease which prevents its victims from sleeping–and worse, like mad-cow disease, it’s spread through the consumption of meat–until it becomes airborne! While the characters are trite, the medical thriller aspect of the book is its greatest strength. Thomason, fresh off his partnership with Ian Caldwell in The Rule of Four, deserves some accolades for this book. It’s an airplane read that is gripping and thought provoking. There are some genuine shocks—relating to how the disease began, and so forth—and that makes this book good, fun reading. It’s not really going to change your life or anything, but it’s worth a spot on this list.
4. World War Z, Max Brooks, 2006
Brad Pitt’s recent film adaptation eschewed the interesting format of the source novel when it opted for a singular protagonist and linear story, a choice with benefits and drawbacks. World War Z is no ordinary zombie thriller—it is told through the eyes of multiple perspectives in a series of short stories, presented as an oral history of the Zombie War. The concept is clever enough, but we could only wish Max Brooks could have had a better mastery of voice; for all the narrator’s differences, they all end up sounding the same. Even so, Max Brooks turns a zombie story into a contemporary medical and disaster thriller by way of a documentary-style recitation. It’s superior to many entries in the overcrowded paranormal genre.
3. The Stand, Stephen King, 1978
The Stand is Stephen King’s answer to The Lord of the Rings and is widely regarded as one of his best works. When government scientists develop a superflu that kills 99% of its victims—the disease escapes, the world is depopulated, and civilization collapses, leaving the survivors to determine the fate of humanity in the final battle between good and evil. Whew. That’s all pretty epic, and this book is huge—over 1000 pages—but the first section of the book is one of the best in post-apocalyptic fiction. The second part gets bogged down in committee hearings as the good guys try to figure out how to beat the bad guys—gah—but by the third act things start happening again (if a little too neatly). Don’t read this book when you are sick. Even if you are well, you might even think that you’re getting sick. Populated by memorable characters and chock-full of literary allusions, The Stand’s vision of civilization’s collapse is alarming. What’s more, scientists at University of Wisconsin-Madison have actually developed a more contagious version of avian flu, (WHY???????) so King’s paranormal musings aside, this book may be closer to fact than fiction.
2. The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton, 1971
Michael Crichton’s first major hit is also a pulse-pounding disease thriller. This time, the disease comes from space—picked up by another military experiment—whereby a space probe tries to catch extra-terrestrial (or mutated Earth bacteria), and then lets the military pick it up, hopefully with a new bio-weapon. But the probe lands in a small town in Arizona, and the townspeople open it up—and all of them die—with the exception of a Sterno addict and a baby. It’s up to a team of scientists to figure out how to stop the disease before it’s too late.
The premise closely adheres to a real problem NASA and other space programs face. Most rockets and probes are sterilized before launch in order to prevent contamination and mutation in any microorganisms traveling in zero gravity. While the disease of The Andromeda Strain may seem absurd, this book practically founded the plague genre of thrillers and it still holds up today. Highly recommended.
1. The Hot Zone, Richard Preston, 1994
The Hot Zone is written in the style of The Andromeda Strain—with one major difference—it’s all true! The Hot Zone is the true story of an ebola outbreak in Reston, Virginia, and true to the cover tagline, it is terrifying. With scenes set in Congo, Uganda, and the DC Metropolitan area, The Hot Zone underscores how easily our modern world can be annihilated like in the world of The Stand—by a horrific disease that promises a painful death and spreads in the same manner as the common cold—through the air. Preston’s narrative is thrilling, alarming, and above all, true. If there’s one book about diseases you should read, it’s this one.
What’s more, some scientists have suggested that the Black Death in the Middle Ages was actually caused by an ebola-like disease instead of the rather slow-spreading Bubonic Plague, as previously believed. According to the scientists, during the Black Death, there was a “45-fold greater risk of death than during normal times, a level of mortality far higher than usually associated with bubonic plague.” More suggestive, scientists add that “there are no reports of dead rats in the streets in the 1300s of the sort common in more recent epidemics when we know bubonic plague was the causative agent.” Whoa! Even more reason to pick up The Hot Zone and learn about ebola!
Honorable Mentions: Code Orange, Caroline Cooney, 2005; I am Legend, Richard Matheson, 1954.
To learn more about the superflu developed by our trustworthy scientists, (WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT?) follow this link:
To learn more about spacecraft sterilization:
And finally, the source for my quotes about the Black Death that may not have been Bubonic Plague—fascinating stuff!
So—what’s your favorite disease thriller? Comment below!