Think of a book in which everyone was nice to each other, people loved their neighbors and the world was an all-round better place than the real one. Pretty dull, right? The truth is, death and destruction make great reading and this can be demonstrated by the huge number of books around that feature plagues, both traditional and sci-fi.
Plagues throw fiction characters into all sorts of situations, from isolation to the mass fleeing of infected areas, the breakdown of societies and the eventual regeneration of communities. Even if the plague is not the focus of the story, disease still makes a fascinating background to fiction, with the characters thrown into unusual circumstances, as is seen in “The Decameron,” a fourteenth century series of short stories Each tale is told by one of a group of people escaping the Black Death epidemic of 1353, in a similar way that the “Canterbury Tales” brings a diverse group of people together.
Even the buboes have buboes
If it is the real details of the Black Death that you are searching for, “The Plague” by Albert Camus is beautifully detailed in its descriptions of symptoms and death throes. Although at first glance the novel appears to be a straightforward tale of a French town infected with bubonic plague during the mid-twentieth century, it is actually a metaphor for the German Occupation of France. Moreover, it contains an even deeper metaphor as a fight between Good and Evil. The sense of fear and isolation are brilliantly portrayed in the novel.
The modern day version of the Black Death could be AIDS. Although it has never taken over the world in the epidemic proportions anticipated by 1980’s media, an estimated 34 million people live with the disease, and in parts of Africa almost 5% may be infected. It is interesting to wonder how long AIDS will continue as a backdrop to novels. With HIV treatments available and the scientific community racing to find a cure, its days as a modern plague may be numbered. Let’s hope so. In the meantime, there are novels such as “Push”, by Sapphire, that focus attention on the disease. This examines the plight of a functionally illiterate teenager who suffers incest, rape and, ultimately, HIV infection from her father, although fortunately the children she bears him are not infected. It is a difficult read, not only in terms of the harrowing content, but because the novel is written in the protagonist’s vernacular.
Technology can kill
“Orxy and Crake” is a novel by Margaret Atwood that was shortlisted for both the 2003 Booker and the 2004 Orange Prizes, amongst others. The first part of the MaddAddam Trilogy, Atwood shows how a man-made plague can destroy modern society. The fascination with this novel stems partly through the progression of more or less normal teenagers at school who develop into the creators of mass destruction, and the conflicts of conscience they must suffer while trying to steer between equally dreadful alternative actions. She clearly likes post-apocalyptic stories, as she is also the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel from 1985, set in a fundamentalist USA where humans are struggling to breed.
No compendium of books about plagues would be complete without the master, Stephen King. His original 1978 version of “The Stand” was reissued in 1990 with 150,000 words that had been cut from the original, and a few updates to the plot, including a new ending. It is a mighty tome – think “Lord of the Rings” trilogy – but tells the tale of the 1% of humanity who survive a man-made virus. You could also argue that “Cell”, his 44th novel (“The Stand” was only his fifth), makes a good plague story. In this case, however, the disease is not biological, but technological. A signal is transmitted down people’s cell phone which turns the call receiver into a zombie-like figure with incredible powers. The zombies act almost as a unit. Tellingly, the author does not own a cell phone and the novel can be seen as a metaphor for the way technology has taken over people’s lives, to the extent that they are controlled by it, rather than the other way around.
Plants vs zombies
One of King’s trademarks is the gory detail which is included in his writing. If you need something apocalyptic but rather less gruesome, “The Day of the Triffids”, by John Wyndham might be just what you are searching for. Poison-spitting plants destroy the population after most people are blinded by a strange meteor shower. The focus is more on the psychology of the rebuilding, although the ever-present threat of triffid attack and the primeval fear of blindness still make this a thrilling read.
There are so many more books that fit into the plague genre, showing how successful a tool it is in the telling of a tale. Nothing worse could happen for the surviving characters, but there is nothing better for a great read.
-A guest post by Claire