I am currently two thirds of the way through writing book one of my latest novel, This Broken Earth: The U.S. of After. I would say that one of the most challenging things was giving a global pandemic a realistic feel without sounding too much like Stephen King’s famous novel The Stand. The super flu in that novel is astounding and well researched, but ultimately a symbolic device used by King to add depth to the narrative. Below I will record my research about the topic of a pandemic, which is closer to reality than most of us want to believe.
1. Pandemic Imminent? – In 2009, the World Health Organization put forth the theory that we are due for another pandemic like the Spanish influenza that wiped out 30-150 million people worldwide in 1918. You may be skeptical about this now, since it is 2012 and no pandemic has hit us yet, but some argue that we are still due for a world-wide deadly plague that will wipe out a percentage of the world population as large as the 1918 bug.
2. A Case In India – Apparently since 2003, a rather virulent airborne TB virus has been worming its way across the planet. In Mumbai, several cases have been documented, and one of these patients came to a clinic, was given x-rays, and then wandered back out into the streets again. This strain of TB is reported to be “totally drug resistant” according to the CDC and the WHO.
3. Designer Viruses - In the former Soviet Union, biological warfare was always an option for dealing with the enemy. There are records and accusations that the Soviets, in 1979, either used a form of anthrax on its citizens or allowed a virus to escape from a secret facility not far from Sverdlovsk where the outbreak took place. It is assumed that some of these viruses still exist on an island in the Black Sea, not to mention the facilities where the United States stores theirs. What if there were a war big enough to cause one of these facilities to be compromised? What if one of these viruses escaped its hermetically sealed container?
4. The Volos Virus – The virus in my novel is named “Volos” because that is the name of the Slavic god of death. The backstory is not really important to the main narrative but is interesting nonetheless. Imagine a hold-over bio-weapons facility from the cold war. The staff face downsizing and increasing numbers of workers over the years are hired not for their expertise, but because they can be taught how to maintain the facility. The administrators are eventually replaced by incompetent workers who operate the facility in a lazy and haphazard manner. One day a worker is fooling around with his girlfriend in the bowels of the facility and accidentally breaks something. All of our nightmares are realized. The virus at first goes unnoticed, there is a coverup, and because the administrators do not want to lose their easy job, they pass the buck. Volos acts like the common cold for the first three weeks of symptoms, but that is when the subject is most contagious. A few of the people in a nearby city are infected, and those people hop on planes taking them across the globe. The worst cases appear in and around airports. Before anyone has an idea of what is going on, the entire globe is in danger. Subjects carry the virus for four weeks before succumbing to the more deadly symptoms which look like e-bola but the gestation and infection period is much longer.
5. Backstory – Of course, all of this takes place at least a year before the narrative of my novel begins. I am taking a page from Tolkien’s playbook, writing out an appendix for my own use. I know every detail of what the virus does to the planet, to the economy, and how it not only is one of the catalysts for world war three, but also brings it to an end. It is important when writing a novel of a global scope to not give the reader every detail. The reader only needs to be shown what happens to the characters in the novel, not necessarily the entire landscape. The device of a global pandemic is only a color with which the canvas of the backdrop is painted. It is also used periodically to frighten the reader when remnants of this virus crop up throughout the character’s journey. It also adds a sense of mystery to the story as well in that readers will wonder about vacant towns and masses of parked earth-moving equipment with giant mounds of dirt nearby. Keep the reader guessing, and they will continue to read to find the answers. It makes for good suspense.