Very excited today! I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while. If you stop in here regularly, you know I love post-apocalypse fiction. I am always curious about end-of-the-world scenarios and this is a great peek at one of them.
Why the most dangerous villains are invisible and don’t carry chainsaws…
What do you think makes a story scary?
Are you the kind who KNOWS the monster is about to jump out of the closet, yet you scream with fear and delight when it does? Or do you think being hunted by zombies determined to eat your brains is scary? How about “someone kidnapped my child” scary? Or Blair Witch Project scary—creepy setting, darkness, isolation, unspeakable menace from atmosphere alone.
My favorite kind of scary is too small to see. For me, microbes are the scariest villains in all of fiction, partly because they’re among the scariest of villains in real life. I’m talking about plagues, of course. More dangerous than the most brutal tyrant (the 1918 influenza killed more people than all of the First World War), more heartless than the most cold-blooded assassin, viruses and bacteria can swiftly murder huge numbers of men, women, and children, sometimes in particularly gruesome ways (see: Ebola, tetanus, or smallpox).
Pestilence and plague are classic material for thrillers. At my review website ScienceThrillers.com, probably one in every five books features either an active infectious disease outbreak, or the imminent threat of one. Earlier this month, the latest entry in Hollywood’s take on the pandemic thriller, CONTAGION, was released into theaters. THE HOT ZONE, a nonfiction thriller about a hemorrhagic fever virus popping up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, is one of the most gripping books ever written. But the tradition goes back at least as far as Daniel Defoe’s fictional 1722 account JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR.
In real life, plague stories do not have happy endings. The dynamics of a pandemic generally depend on the virus picking off the weak or susceptible members of a population, until the survivors are either immune (from exposure and recovery) or somehow resistant to the germ. In this way, killer microbes act as agents of evolution in human populations. The effect can be profound over a just a few centuries. The microbes themselves change, too. It’s not in the “best interests”of a bacterium to swiftly kill its host; better to linger for a long time, and get lots of chances to spread. Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, was once almost uniformly fatal. But even before antibiotics, the disease changed to become less severe as parasite and host evolved together.
This kind of reality does not make for a good story. Thus killer virus/plague stories generally end one of two ways. In one variety (exemplified by I AM LEGEND or THE STAND), the microbe wins, and the story is a tale of apocalypse followed by survival in the post-plague world.
In the other variety, some people die, and the reader/viewer is terrified that the plague will spread and consume the world. But it doesn’t, because our hero or heroine finds a miracle cure or vaccine just in time. While this allows for a happier ending, it isn’t exactly realistic. Most plague thrillers fall into this category.
My interest in microbes as villains, however, goes beyond deadly germs. Microorganisms are vital to the normal functioning of our healthy bodies, of our agriculture, and of our environment. What if some of these under-appreciated helpers turned against us? The consequences could be just as far-reaching and deadly as a disease-causing plague.
PETROPLAGUE, a new science thriller, is my contribution to the plague genre. The microbial villains in this tale don’t even infect people. They grow in petroleum.They eat it, and turn it into vinegar. When they contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles, all the city’s gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel are destroyed. If the petroplague escapes the quarantine, modern civilization would collapse–an apocalypse without a single direct human death.
Prions, bioterrorism, genetically-altered bacteria, species-jumping viruses, weirdfungi—all have science thrillers written about them. And I’m always ready to readone more.
Dr. Amy Rogers is a former microbiology professor, now author of the science thriller PETROPLAGUE. Learn more about her at AmyRogers.com, or choose your next beach read at ScienceThrillers.com.
View the PETROPLAGUE trailer: youtube.com/watch?v=e5soyxCKntE