Geek Speak

Why I Love Sci-Fi Diseases

I've had disease on my mind the past three days: Since small children are nature's perfect disease incubators and all, my toddler is sick. That means I've spent the past sixty hours or so wiping snot, administering drugs and having someone cough directly into my mouth every time I let my guard down. Combine that with the kind of cranky tyranny that can only come from a not-quite-three-year-old who's operating on not nearly enough sleep and running a low-grade fever, and it's easy to understand my preoccupation. It's even easier once you understand that I love a good fictional plague far more than can possibly be healthy.

My first love affair with a made-up pathogen came somewhere in junior high, with the discovery of John Christopher's Empty World. In the book, a disease called Calcutta Plague kills off pretty much everyone apart from a few adolescents, leaving them to fend for themselves in the titular empty world. Something about this book, and the loneliness of its protagonist, spoke to my barely teenaged self, a weird kid who was isolated from most of my peers both by my geekiness and the constant moving around my family did. I must have read this book a dozen times, imagining myself walking through empty cities and maybe, somewhere along the way, realizing that my own isolation maybe wasn't so bad, all things considered. It's not a great book — the author's Tripods series is both better written and better known — but it did help kick off not only an interest in illness as a plot device, but in post-apocalyptic fiction in general. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Of course, it's impossible to consider my love of a good plague without including my greatest geek love of all: zombies. With few exceptions, the fiction of the zombie apocalypse is the fiction of rampant, uncontrolled epidemics that just so happen to bring people back from the dead as flesh-hungry freaks. Frequently, this is made explicitly clear, as in 28 Days Later, where the mechanics of the Rage virus play a fairly big role in the execution of the story, or in Max Brooks's World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide and Steven Schlozman's The Zombie Autopsies, all of which spend considerable time delving into the exact mechanisms of disease that cause the dead to become the undead.

In other cases, such as George A. Romero's seminal Dead films — Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as the later, lesser sequels and spinoffs — no real cause is given, but the observable facts fit a disease or disease-like cause. Whatever the cause, the zombies themselves work well as a metaphor for any disease, real or imagined, what with their implacability and mindlessness and tendency to kill you dead no matter what precautions you take. And then you have the diseases that cause zombie-like behavior, but maybe don't qualify as quite zombies, like the bizarre linguistic virus in Pontypool that causes victims to repeat words over and over, infecting anyone who hears them until they devolve into a mindless psychosis that causes them to attempt to chew the face off anyone near them. Are the zombies? Maybe, or maybe not, but they are zombie-like and the movie is awesome, so it's close enough. The real question is, would I love zombies as much as I do if they didn't dovetail so nicely with my love of disease? Maybe, but it sure doesn't hurt that anytime I need to see a horrible pathogen take out most of humanity, I can get my fix from any of a dozen of my all-time favorite zombie movies or books. It's a nice coincidence, at the very least. 

Even outside of zombies, some of my favorite science fiction and horror dwells on disease. Michael Crichton's debut novel, The Andromeda Strain, about an alien disease that nearly wipes out humanity, is easily his best work besides Jurassic Park. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash offers one of the more novel diseases ever to see print, in a linguistic virus that causes glossolalia and can also infect computers. Then there's Steven King's classic The Stand, a novel that perfectly and terrifyingly depicts the aftermath of a world-killing "super flu," making it the best post-plague novel of all time — apart from the absolutely atrocious ending that all but ruins everything that comes before it, of course. You can't call yourself a love of disease fiction without reading it, but maybe skip the last thirty or so pages and just make up an ending that works for you, since whatever you come up with will be better than the shit sandwich King serves up to close the story.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go. I'm feeling a tickle in my throat and an ache in my body that can only mean that one or more of the snot rockets launched my way by my daughter has overpowered my immune system. I think I'll pull one or two of these disease-porn classics off the shelf and curl up under a blanket for the next three days while I nurse the creeping death that has descended upon my house. Feel free to join me when it hits your household or, better yet, share your own favorite tales of pestilence and contagion in the comments section. I could use a few new ones. 

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.

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Cory Casciato is a Denver-based writer with a passion for the geeky, from old science fiction movies to brand-new video games.
Contact: Cory Casciato