Ten Literary Plagues

Ten literary plagues (and plenty of honourable mentions).

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Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France 1974-1975

This list has spread here from its original posting at All That Is Solid Melts Into Argh.

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10) Hsing’s Spontaneous Self-Flaying Sarcoma, documented by Liz Williams in The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, ed. Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts.

A day or so later, the outer layer of the epidermis splits at the temple into a series of lotus-like petals, apparently causing the victim to force his/her head into the nearest narrow gap (such as a window frame) rather in the manner of a snake attempting to aid the shedding of its skin. Rejecting all offers of help and attempts at restraint, the victim bloodlessly sloughs the skin, ‘scrolling it down the torso and limbs in the manner of a tantalizingly unrolled silk stocking’ (Mudthumper, p.1168).

OK, we’re starting with one that’s not really contagious (as far as I know). So it only manages to scraape its way onto the top ten. But it can also be considered a calling card for Thackery’s, which is a good source of plagues generally. But is whimsy what we need now? I’m not sure.

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9) Black Death AND Influenza in Connie Willis’s celebrated time travel novel The Doomsday Book. The time travel conceit allows Willis to compare social responses to outbreaks many centuries apart. In this snippet our time traveller, washed up in a part of the past she never intended to visit, tries in vain to mobilise her superior scientific and historical perspectives …

She had tried to remember what remedies the contemps had tried while he was gone. They had carried nosegays of flowers and drunk powdered emeralds and applied leeches to the buboes, but all of those were worse than useless, and Dr Ahrens had said it wouldn’t have mattered what they had tried, that nothing except antimicrobials like tetracycline and streptomycin would have worked, and those had not been discovered until the twentieth century.

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8) The plague in Daniel Defoe’s 1722 Journal of the Plague Year, a hugely formative work in the history of the Western novel. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but we might even think of the way the novel form revels in jumping across the perspectives of socio-economic classes, or examining the semi-permeable barriers which divide them, as a kind of virality itself …

Thomas. You will go away. Whither will you go, and what can you do? I would as willingly go away as you, if I knew whither. But we have no acquaintance, no friends. Here we were born, and here we must die.

John. Look you, Tom, the whole kingdom is my native country as well as this town. You may as well say I must not go out of my house if it is on fire as that I must not go out of the town I was born in when it is infected with the plague. I was born in England, and have a right to live in it if I can.

Thomas. But you know every vagrant person may by the laws of England be taken up, and passed back to their last legal settlement.

John. But how shall they make me vagrant? I desire only to travel on, upon my lawful occasions.

Thomas. What lawful occasions can we pretend to travel, or rather wander upon? They will not be put off with words.

John. Is not flying to save our lives a lawful occasion?

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7) The Melding Plague in Alaistar Reynold’s Revelation Space books. In a future where most folk are filled with cybernetic implants, this phenomenon makes those implants chaotically expand. The Melding Plague tries to synthesise flesh and machine, and it affects both our bodies and our built environment. It’s described as almost “purposeful” and almost “artistic.”

The servitors lurched forwards, approaching the shattered angel of the Captain. More than ever he looked like something which had not so much crept with glacial slowness from his reefer, but had burst with volcanic ferocity, only to be frozen in a strobe flash. He radiated in every direction parallel to the wall, extending far into the corridor on either side, for dozens of metres. Nearest to him, his grawth consisted of trunk-thick cylinders, the colour of quicksilver, but with the texture of jewel-encrusted slurry, constantly shimmering and twinkling, hinting at phenomenally industrious buried activity. Further away, on his periphery, the branches subdivided into a bronchial-like mesh. At its very boundary, the mesh grew microscopically fine and blended seamlessly with the fabric of its substrate: the ship itself. It was glorious with diffraction patterns, like a membrane of oil on water.

Hegemonising goos and singularities of various kinds appear in fiction by Iain M. Banks, Charles Stross, Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Rudy Rucker, Linda Nagata, and others. We might compare something like the HegSwarms from Iain M. Banks’s Culture books. HegSwarms are more straightforwardly an example of grey goo, “self-replicating nanotech out of control” trope: a homogenising plague propagating through all kinds of physical systems. A snippet from Banks’s Surface Detail:

Restoria was the part of Contact charged with taking care of hegemonising swarm outbreaks, when — by accident or design — a set of self-replicating entities ran out of control somewhere and started trying to turn the totality of the galaxy’s matter into nothing but copies of themselves. It was a problem as old as life in the galaxy and arguably hegswarms were just that; another legitimate — if rather over-enthusiastic — galatic life-form type. […] Even the most urbanely sophisticated, scrupulously empathic and excruciatingly polite civilisation, it had been suggested, was just a hegswarm with a sense of proportion.

Reynolds’ Melding Plague, by contrast, is not trying to assimilate the entire universe into some identical format. It’s more interested in highly aestheticised kaleidescopic body horror: not grey goo so much as varicolored-crystalline-n-dimensional-irridescent-goo. There is a sense of a complex patterning logic for which we are the unfortunate substrate. See also Peter F. Hamilton’s Zanth, Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X (and Alex Garland et al.’s Annihilation adaptation). Compare Reynold’s more grey goo-ish Greenfly Terraformers.


6) The “bad luck,” as Sparrowhawk calls it at one point: the mysterious disenchantment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore. Once more not strictly a plague, though it reproduces some of its logic. There is also a Patient Zero of sorts. Contagions spreading across the land are of course a key trope of epic fantasy, and they may be enchanted and/or allegorical in diverse ways. See also e.g. Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away, the Nothing in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, the Forge in Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, etc. Sometimes the source of the contagion is something a bit more like a hellmouth, e.g. Roger Zelazny’s The Guns of Avalon. These myriad magical contagions can sometimes be read as oblique commentaries on depression, despair, loneliness, paranoia, and other forms of psychic ill-being, and on capitalism’s entwined processes of atomisation, rationalisation, secularisation, and alienation.

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5) The bacillus in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), which turns everyone into zombie-like vampires. A big influence on the filmmaker Romero and many a zombie story since. See also e.g. the Rage virus in 28 Days Later, the virus in Max Brooks’s World War Z, the cordyceps infection in the Last of Us games, and the viruses in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh books.

Virus or no virus, apocalyptic zombie narratives are almost always closely affiliated with pandemics. Whether your zombies are fast or slow, eldritch or techno-scientific, whether they are partial to brains or just mad as hell, it’s the extreme contagiousness of the condition that is at the heart of this myth, and that differentiates your apocalyptic zombies from your “sorcerer’s undead servant” style zombie. Spreading is the apocalyptic zombie’s MO. (Consider that vampirism and lycanthropy are also often supposed to be transmitted by a bite, yet vampires and werewolves — Matheson’s tale being a weird exception — seldom swarm).

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4) BlyssPluss in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), the first of the MadAddam trilogy. A great many works on this list are interested in (even obsessed with) pandemics as a socio-economic leveller. Atwood doesn’t exactly escape that kind of “all is vanity!” impulse, but she does at least seriously explore economic inequality, and even hints at how economic inequality can become an existential risk. Somewhat related: here’s an academic working paper by Polina Levontin et al. about so-called “lone wolf” bioterrorism and apocalyptic science fiction.

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3) The Red Death in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’

No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

See also Cory Doctorow’s take on the tale.

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2) The eponymous plague of Albert Camus’s existential novel The Plague. A brutal, beautiful novel which thinks a lot about individual and collective action, and somehow manages to make those things not feel as separate or opposed as they usually do.

Honorable mentions: Wuhan Flu documented by Eric Schaller, Download Syndrome documented by Steve Aylett, Jumping Monkworm documented by Sara Gwenllian Jones, and many, many more in Thackery T. Lambshead’s Pocket Guide etc., Jennifer Cooke’s academic book on plagues in literature and film, and recent article reflecting on Covid-19, the Plagues of Egypt in The Book of Exodus, the plague in Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, the pandemic in the game Pandemic, the plague in Plague Inc., Shen Fever in Ling Ma’s Severence, the plagues in Jonathan Holloway’s play The Time Machine, transformation into rhinoceroses in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Farmer’s Tremors and billions of other procedurally generated Dungeons & Dragons diseases, the plague in Karen Lord’s ‘The Plague Doctors’ (downloadable here), Andromeda in Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, the plague among livestock at Noricum in Virgil’s Georgics (thanks Abi), children’s voices in Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet (thanks Sam), the fast prion in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, Captain Trips from Stephen King’s The Stand (thanks everybody), the plague described in Boccacio’s Decameron, the notional plague on both your houses in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the plague in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, the parasite in Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark, Georgia Flu in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Snow Crash in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Buscard’s Murrain aka Wormwood in China Mieville’s ‘Entry Taken from a Medical Journal’ (also in Thackery’s), Diseasemaker’s Croup in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things (and Thackery’s), the femicidal plague in James Tiptree Jnr’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’, the consumption ‘plague’ in Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Midas Plague,’ the plague in Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice-Cream Star, the bioweapon Clarity in Cory Doctorow’s ‘Chicken Little’, the Motaba virus in the movie Outbreak, the fog in the movie The Fog, the ‘ST-Demon’ in the movie It Follows, the Simian Flu in the Planet of the Apes movies, the mass infertility in P.D. James’s Children of Men, the Hopping Cough in The Smurfs, the atavism-causing Barclay’s Protomorphosis Syndrome in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and various other Trekkie plagues and contagions (Tribbles maybe?), the (mass but non-contagious) blindness in John Wyndeham’s Day of the Triffids, the blindness in H.G. Wells’s ‘Country of the Blind’, the blindness in José Saramago’s The Blindness, the Wandering Sickness in H.G. Wells’s Shape of Things to Come, the Monte Carlo viruses in Greg Egan’s ‘Blood Sisters’, the devastating Golgafrinchan plague transmitted via unsanitized telephone in Douglas Adams’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe, cholera in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, the plague in Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Mourned’, smallpox etc. in Chelsea Quin Yarbro’s Time of the Fourth Horseman, Dryditch Fever in Brian Jacques’s Salamandastron, the Boston plague in Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, Amusica in Alaistar Reynolds’s Century Rain, GuiltTrip in Peter Watts’s Rifter books, the pandemic in Tiffany E. Wilson’s ‘One Shot,’ Salt Plague in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker books, Grayscale and Pale Mare and the Spring Sickness in G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, Spattergroit in the Harry Potter books by anonymous, the Forge in Robin Hobbes’s Assassin’s Apprentice and others in that series, Sevai and Vedet in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, the White Blindness (myxy) in Richard Adams’s Watership Down, the noocytes in Greg Bear’s Blood Music, the cult virus in Linda Nagata’s Vast, The New Decamaron (a work in plagueress) and so on to …

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1) The plague in Samuel R. Delany’s remarkable metafictional novella, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals (1985, later expanded, and collected here), which collages the swords-and-sorcery plague of Nevèrÿon into memoir, theory, and philosophy and poetics, wrestling with the 1980s AIDs epidemic in New York City. It is a little distinctive on this list for its keen sense of how an outbreak of disease doesn’t just level socio-economic inequalities, but can also amplify and exacerbate them.

“Listen to me.” The actor pulled him back. “Rights, you say? You’re not going to get the plague. You know that as well as I do! Me and my kind, we’re the ones in danger. And do you think for a minute if I thought there was any right, reason, or efficacy to be gained by tearing down this bridge, I wouldn’t have been here days ago with a hammer myself? But that’s for us to decide. Not you -” The actor paused, because, from the bandy-legged worker’s eyes, two very fat tears, first as glimmerings along his lower lids, then as irregular spills in the torchlight, moved down his dark cheeks toward his beard.

At one point Delany asks of characters of SFF, in what senses are their problems the same as his? And then: and in what senses are they different?

Elsewhere: Lois Beckett’s ‘A Dystopian Reading List: books to enjoy while in quarantine’


3 thoughts on “Ten Literary Plagues

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