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?