World-building, world-destroying

Destroying a world can be as complex as building one. While I’m still deep in the world of “The Swan Harp”, lately I’ve been reading for research for two more YA novels. My most recent research reading was (“Flu: A Social History of Influenza”). It’s making me think about my YA speculative fiction novel, “Here be Dragons”, in which a zoonotic disease plays a part.

“Influenza” means “influence”. Early writings on influenza blame its occurrence on miasmas and mists and weather patterns which cast an influence on humans and made them ill. It’s as good an explanation as any other when you realize that we couldn’t even see viruses until the 1930s.

I’ve learned a lot about how viruses work, and why they’re so hard to defeat. They mutate very rapidly, learning efficient ways to use a new host. A chunk of the book talked about how some months before a disastrous epidemic or pandemic round of influenza, there was usually a milder version which conferred immunity on its survivors when the more deadly mutation hit later in the year.

We also watched “I Am Legend” last night, based very, very loosely on Richard Matheson’s story of the same name. I noticed how fast they had complete social and governmental breakdown happen in the movie – less than three years. I’ve wondered about that, because the 1918 influenza pandemic didn’t create compete social and governmental breakdown. On the other hand, although the 1918 ‘flu spread almost everywhere in the world, it took about eighteen months to do it. Now, of course, it would be much faster, and much harder to contain.

The mortality rate in 1918 varied from 20% to 100% in different populations and conditions, and yet overworked medical staff stayed on the job, and ‘flu patients were not abandoned as a rule. In a battle situation, a company can break and run if 10% of its soldiers are killed, yet in disease situations, people can cope somehow with higher mortality rates without deserting the patients. The 1918 ‘flu was not a peaceful death, either, and had some very frightening physical effects.

All this research, grisly though it is, fascinates me. I’m the girl who was listening to and reading everything available about the SARS outbreak, noticing how spokespeople talked, how the public responded to the threat, the problems of making people take quarantine seriously, the psychological ramifications of being an isolated patient who never saw a human face or felt a human touch because all the medical staff wore hazmat suits.

The irrationality of response hit me, too. I remember hearing about an Alberta businessman who was supposed to meet with some people in Dublin. The Dubliners called the meeting off because of the SARS outbreak in Toronto.

It makes me think about how to structure my own social breakdown. Should I create a classic pandemic, with a milder strain arising a few months before the deadlier version? Or should I just hit ’em once with The Big One? How much detail do I need to include, considering that my novel will be told through the voice of a teenaged girl?

In the meantime, I’ve caught a mild lung lurgy of my own. I wonder if it was the “influenza” of reading about it?

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5 Responses to World-building, world-destroying

  1. Hello!
    I find this quite fascinating. Thanks for a peek into your research world.
    I’ve never given the flu much consideration, but have studied the various old-time plagues of Europe. My son had a school assignment to write on the effect of the Black Plague, and had no idea where to begin research (before Internet in homes.) I asked a British friend to point us in the right direction. “Could you give me an overview of the effect of the Black Plague on London, in one sentence?”
    Her anwer, verbatum: “It cleared out all the ‘slums'”. That started the research, for sure.
    Another disease about which I’ve accidentally run into some history is polio. Reading a magazine article while waiting in a lobby, I learned that before immunization, many people were naturally immune to polio, supposedly because of having contracted a mild case of it, without even knowing.
    I don’t know how you will eventually write it, but while you were on the subject, I thought you might appreciate these tidbits. 🙂

  2. Fascinating! I had a vague inkling about some of this, especially how the Europeans brought illnesses to the Native Canadians/Americans when they settled here, killing off whole tribes with Smallpox and the like. We have a town nearby that had an Ojibwe name meaning ‘Death River’. Only a small boy survived the epidemic and was adopted into Chief Peguis’ tribe. That’s about the extent of my knowledge on the subject.

    Thanks for sharing all of your research and good luck working it into your new story. 🙂

  3. Widdershins says:

    Just read your story in DSF … nicely done … dang those pesky M.I.B for stealing your technology!

  4. ecreith says:

    Happy to let you all peek into my research anytime. Some of it gets a bit gross. There are things I won’t repeat from “A Social History of Influenza” that stick, alas, in my mind. And thanks, Widdershins! I was so thrilled to see my own story in DSF – I’ve been trying to get into that publication since it started up nearly two years ago!

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