Monday, April 27, 2009

In Which the Apocalypse Gal Considers Swine Flu

I have been interested in the intersections of disease and culture (especially collapsing cultures)for several decades now. Coming of age during the early years of the AIDS pandemic can do that to a person. Plus, I'm drawn to apocalyptic narratives, and apocalyptic narratives that involve diseases are that much more compelling to me.

I've been on the outlook for the next flu pandemic for 10 years now. I thought that we might be on the cusp several years ago, with the recent strain of avian flu (H5N1--I didn't even have to look it up, although I did doublecheck--that's how much of a disease geek I am). But once scientists discovered that the disease did best in the deepest part of the human lung (bad for lungs, good in terms of reduced transmissibility), I began to think we might be safe. At least, safe from that strain.

Yesterday morning, I read various newspaper accounts of the recent swine flu outbreak and went to church. I was acutely aware of everyone sneezing and coughing and sniffling. Now, I'm not saying that I think we're seeing the early signs here in South Florida. No, not at all. But hearing all those respiratory noises and thinking about human-to-human transmission--one just becomes that much more aware of how easy it is to spread an airborne virus.

I came home in the mood to read an apocalyptic novel, but I couldn't decide which one. Many of my apocalyptic books are more sci-fi in tone and setting than I wanted yesterday.

So, I'm re-reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. I remember reading it in 2003; I remember tracking down the one remaining library copy and going to a strange neighborhood, hoping and praying it would be there. And I remember feeling so happy when I found it on the shelf.

What I don't remember is much about the plot. So much more fun for me.

A few years ago, my friend and her daughter and I went to see Margaret Atwood when she came through Miami. What a treat. I love how her apocalyptic novels (sci-fi tinged, but would we call them true sci-fi? I'll keep blogging, while y'all argue terminology) are firmly rooted in stuff that's already happening or at least already possible. It makes it that much more terrifying. Try re-reading The Handmaid's Tale in light of what's happening in Pakistan, and see if you can still sleep at night, especially if you're female. Then consider that the book was written over 25 years ago.

If you were a fiction writer, you wouldn't put all these elements from our current real life into one book, at least not one that claimed to be realistic fiction and not some strain of sci-fi: economic collapse, global climate change (leading to impending climate collapse?), a new strain of flu that mixes avian, swine, and human types. It would just be too unbelievable to have all those things happen all at once, in one book. And yet, here we are.

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