Going viral: why diseases are infecting fiction

As the Zika virus casts a shadow over the Rio Olympics, Rob Ewing explores the growing fascination with epidemics in literature and film

Before Zika reached the Americas, casting a shadow over this summers Olympics in Rio, it was little heard of. And yet it was there: present in the human population at least since 1952, and considered a rather innocuous virus until the amplifying effect of a large outbreak in Brazil revealed its devastating association with the rare birth defect, microcephaly.

Of course, Zika is only the latest virus to make the headlines. Youve heard of Ebola, swine flu, bird flu. But what about Mers-CoV? West Nile virus, Sars, Lassa? And the one we should really worry about, the one that global health experts discuss in hushed meetings in Geneva and Washington DC: TNBO? The Next Big One.

This is the virus I imagined for my novel, The Last of Us. I was working as a GP on the Hebridean island of Barra during the swine flu epidemic of 2009, and saw how powerless we might be in the face of a major global pandemic. Sure, we had antiviral drugs, though it was unclear how much they would help, and they were in limited supply. And we had face masks, which were not much good, and also in short supply. We had no facility for ventilation should a person become seriously unwell, and retrieval to the mainland could take hours or even days in adverse weather.

In the event, swine flu turned out to be a mild illness for the vast majority, although many people with chronic illnesses died, which left me nervous about when (not if) TNBO would strike.

The subject of plagues and pandemics is probably as old as literature itself: coming down to us from the oldest tale of all, Gilgamesh, later refigured in the Egyptian and biblical plagues; then much later still in some of the greatest works of western literature: in Boccaccios Decameron, in several of Shakespeares plays (The Tempest, Timon of Athens, King Lear), in Defoes Journal of a Plague Year, and then in the 19th century with Mary Shelleys The Last Man and Edgar Allen Poes The Masque of the Red Death.

By the mid-20th century post-apocalyptic fiction echoed the concerns of the time: nuclear wars, alien invasions, body snatching and totalitarian regimes. But, especially in the last few years, viruses have figured highly in these end-of-world imaginings, with Stephen Kings The Stand, Justin Cronins The Passage, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Terry Hayess I Am Pilgrim and Dan Browns Inferno just a few of the more recent examples.

Will Smith in the film reworking of I Am Legend. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

But why this profusion of virus-related fiction? Or to put it another way: why are we so much more fearful now of viruses than, say, bacteria, or parasites? Far more people die of such infections each year, yet they have been demoted to second-rate threats. In Richard Mathesons 1951 novel I Am Legend, the worlds vampirism was caused by a bacillus. But in the film reboot of 2008 this was updated to a virus. In Michael Crichtons 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain it is a deadly bacillus from space that kills the inhabitants of one Arizona town. Nine years later in The Stand (1978), it is a flu virus.

Now we have a wealth of viral fiction tropes. Want to read more about the ones that turn us into vampires? Go for Cronins The Passage, or Blood Nation. Viruses that turn us into zombies (Max Brookss World War Z); into cannibals (James Dashners Maze Runner books); self-eating cannibals (Richard Prestons The Cobra Event); viruses that turn us into slime (the Warhammer books); a virus that infects people of the Middle East (Jim Hendees Codon Zero).

But real-life viruses will always have the edge when it comes to true horror. Two non-fiction books that kept me up late at night are Gareth Williams Angel of Death (about smallpox), and David Quammens Spillover, written before the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15, but clearly predicting just such a scenario.

As a GP I often receive bulletins from the government and our local public health department on newly emerging viruses. Some of the names I dimly recollect from medical school, but others (such as the Zika virus) I have never heard of before. Which underlines the fact that there are more out there: and the arrival of TNBO can only be a matter of time.

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing is published by Borough.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/15/viral-diseases-fiction-film-rob-ewing