Y’know, as literary devices go, disease is a great one. It can cover anything from worldbuilding (“and that’s why society collapsed and dystopia happened”) to plot-driving (“find a cure for the nano-virus!”) to allegory and metaphor-making, as the zombies wander mindlessly through the shopping mall. (I see what you did there, Mr. Romero…!)
And unless we’re trying to stop Baron von Bad before he unleashes the super-leprosy, the best thing about disease is that you don’t even need an antagonist. That’s the scariest part, really. There’s no bargaining with a bacterium. It doesn’t hate you. It doesn’t even really notice you. You’re just collateral damage.
Still, SFF can do more with it. So often, either disease just doesn’t seem to happen, even if we’re in Euro-Medieval Fantasyland and it really, really should, or else it’s the entire zombie-infested plot. Maybe that’s not so true now that we have grimdark fantasy to supply our RDA of pox-scarred leering innkeepers and lice-riddled harlots, but even then, it’s usually more for atmosphere than anything else: with dark armies on the move and evil tyrants conspiring, it’s rare that our heroes have to worry about anything as mundane as malaria.
And yet that idea is rich with possibilities. In Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, for example, the main plot involves a group of Jesuit-sponsored explorers making first contact on an alien planet. As the explorers work to learn the local language, figure out which foods are safe for human consumption, and refuel the lander to get back to their orbiting ship, they worry that they might not make it back to Earth again. Then one of them gets sick.
It’s not plague. It’s not poison. Nothing bursts out of his stomach at the dinner table. But he can’t shake the fever, chills, and debilitating diarrhea, and as the days turn to weeks of slow, wasting decline, the rest of the group are forced to confront the possibility that this mysterious malady might actually kill him.
And the fact that this is a subplot makes it just that much more sinister. The main mission can’t stop for him – we’re still striving for survival on an alien planet – but his illness adds an underpinning of urgency, frustration, and anxiety to everything else that happens.
This kind of thing really resonates with me, not least because it’s where we live here in the real world. Sickness comes in so many flavors, some of which are the stuff of 3AM anxieties – and yet the world keeps turning, and we’re still expected to go on with our lives. Grocery shopping and laundry still have to get done, even if you’re getting chemo every Friday. You still have to go into work, even if someone you love is very sick. If anything, this makes illness even harder, because so often it’s an AND in our lives, not an OR.
And that sickness becomes even more worrisome when nobody understands the cause of it. I got a lot of mileage out of that in Medicine for the Dead. Two native men, Vuchak and Weisei, are taking Elim – a “half”, or mixed-race foreigner – to trial for murder. On the journey, Weisei is kind and generous to Elim – but then he starts getting sick. He insists that it’s only the result of the magical pollution that’s irradiated the desert they’re crossing, but Vuchak is sure that Elim is the cause of Weisei’s worsening condition:
Vuchak’s gaze drifted to the sight of the half, his over-large shape spilling long shadows across the ground as he tended to the horse.
There were two kinds of poison. The slow ones, like alcohol, worked their damage only by degrees. If the half’s nature was toxic, if every interaction with him spread the evil he had festering in his soul, then Weisei had only to abstain for awhile, and he would soon be well again.
But then there were the other poisons, like tlimit, like royal hemlock, whose potency was so terrible that a single exposure could be fatal. If the poison was in the half’s body – if he carried sickness in him like a rabid bat – then Weisei had long since been contaminated, and would only get sicker as the plague seeped through him, and there was nothing anyone here could do about it.
Well, that was not quite true.
Vuchak watched the half, his eyes narrowing in the red light. He might not be able to do anything about plague, but a plague-carrier would be another matter entirely.
So now this sickness is changing the character dynamic, and its origin becomes far less important than its potential consequences. As Elim himself begins to wonder whether he’s responsible for Weisei’s illness, his problems multiply: is he some kind of Typhoid Mary, a carrier doomed to infect the native people of this region, regardless of his intentions? And what will Vuchak do to him if he decides that he is?
That’s my favorite part, really. Frightening as disease is, it becomes even more so when we don’t know the source, or worse (better!) yet, can’t agree on it. In fantasy, part of the fantasy is that the Terrible Awful Thing in your life has a name, a reason, and usually an intentional actor behind it. In other words, you know what’s wrong and who’s to blame. But the cause of an illness is often a total mystery – and we’re never, ever comfortable admitting our ignorance. That’s how we get ridiculous, painful, sometimes fatal pseudo-remedies. That’s how a village outbreak ends up with people executed for witchcraft. That’s the dramatic potential of disease, discord, and supernatural dysentery!
Medicine for the Dead is out now from Solaris Books.