Sometimes fiction can do more to change public opinion than nonfiction. It took Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, to awaken the public to the dangers of sausage and the meat-packing industry in general. Another example, if I can be so presumptuous, is my 1977 novel Coma, which opened readers' eyes to the dubious side of the medical profession after years of misleadingly warm and fuzzy treatment of doctors and hospitals in novels, movies, and TV series. Today, there is a crying need for a new such socially conscious novel to shake up the complacent public about the high risk of an imminent, serious pandemic. And I don't mean the much-publicized swine flu. While the world media has obsessed, and rightfully so, about this fast-spreading illness, I'm worried about the next crisis, something much deadlier and much more catastrophic, indeed the kind of crisis most people wrongly believe could not happen in this day and age. If I were the author, this urgently needed novel would have to be called Plague.
Why the Black Death stil won't die.
By Emily Anthes
Everyone has heard of plague and knows it means a sudden outbreak of a virulent disease. But it also has a very common, very specific association in the public mind: It's synonymous with the Black Death, the scourge caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that swept through Europe (as well as much of the rest of the world) from 1348 to 1350. Viewing this monumental and even Malthusian event from the vantage point of nearly seven centuries later, one cringes at having to contemplate the horror, the excruciating pain, and the terror its victims had to suffer. Knowing the pain involved with a tiny boil, it is almost impossible to imagine what it was like being deathly ill with most of one's lymph nodes swelling to the point of becoming visible, blackened lumps with their interiors necrotizing and liquefying -- and all of that happening without analgesics and certainly without antibiotics. If David Letterman presented a top-10 list of the worst possible ways to leave this world, dying of the plague in the 14th century would have to be at the top.
And the horror of the Black Death went far beyond individual physical pain. Given the speed with which the illness spread through cities, it must have caused ultimate anxiety and panic as the wildfire disease left rotting, infective corpses, oozing putrefaction, piled in the streets. Urban society was unable to cope and, in many places, essentially collapsed due to the number of victims (some cities lost 90 percent of their residents). Adding to the chaos, war between two of the era's more significant powers -- England and France -- raged fitfully on and off after 1337. Commerce stagnated, especially in regard to food, causing famine. And perhaps cruelest of all, paroxysms of gruesome mass murders erupted as minorities were scapegoated. All in all, the Black Death had to have been hell on Earth, especially because no one -- not the doctors, not the priests, and not the scientists of the age -- had even the slightest idea of what was causing the calamity, how it was spread, or how it could be treated.