It’s the end of the world as we know it

Is everyone having a nice apocalypse? Jolly good – now let’s talk about what happens next!

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The professor who taught microbial genetics during my undergrad degree was hilarious. A lot of people didn’t like him at all, but those of us with advanced dry humour detection abilities absolutely loved him. One of his most memorable moments was when he told a packed lecture theatre about how he’d tried to introduce a new exam format for final year students, which would involve designing and engineering a novel virus; the class would be graded on a curve, with those who managed to kill the most people upon the release of the virus getting the top marks. However, the university apparently wouldn’t let him, so he had to keep using those boring essay questions.

When I saw the iPhone game Plague Inc, I wondered if Professor Samson had been involved in its conception. Probably not, but he would have loved it. The aim is to evolve a pathogen that will wipe out the world; you get “DNA points” for infecting and killing people and for spreading the disease to new countries, and can redeem them for new traits related to symptoms, route of transmission, and resistance to human research and treatment efforts. It really is enormously good fun.

PLAGUE

The trick is to focus first on infecting as many people as possible without making them so sick that finding a cure becomes a global priority, then ramping up the symptoms and resistance to treatment / genetic analysis once you’ve infected as many people as possible. Unfortunately though, it’s almost impossible to win without help; I tried to get past the first (bacterial) level, which you need to beat in order to unlock the more exotic virus, prion and parasite levels, about seven times without success. The problem was that I kept killing everyone except a few hundred people in fucking Greenland and being told I’d failed. GREENLAND! Honestly! I ended up reluctantly paying an extra 99 cents for a power-up – you can unlock these by playing well, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. Some awesome geeks I met at Beth‘s party a few days later a) commiserated with me about fucking Greenland and then b) let me know that you have to beat a level on the hardest setting to unlock the power-ups for free (I’d been playing on “normal), so I felt a bit better about my extravagant expenditure.

The global outbreak simulation is obviously rather scientifically unrealistic – when the virus evolves a new trait it manifests itself in every single infected person in the world simultaneously, for starters – but really, it’s the “leaving any survivors at all means you fail. Even if they’re in fucking Greenland” flaw that bugs me the most. Where’s the fun in that?! I’m a huuuuuge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, starting with my childhood love of John Wyndham, and therefore appreciate that what happens after the plague is the most interesting part.

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(smooth and seamless segue into the book-review portion of the post)

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One of the best examples of the genre (and one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years – I’m completely 100% serious about that) is World War Z by Max Brooks. Yes, it’s about zombies, but it’s entirely unlike any other book I’ve read (or film or TV series I’ve seen) in this genre, or even in the post-apocalyptic fiction genre as a whole. The novel’s set in the very near future and is framed as a series of interviews, conducted a few years after the outbreak by a UN official who’s been tasked with writing a comprehensive report. Each chapter is its own little story, featuring interviews with doctors, soldiers, politicians, psychologists, civil servants, and ordinary people from all over the world about their own little part of the war; together, these vignettes add up to one of the most detailed and thoughtful post-pathogen-apocalypse scenarios I’ve ever read. (It even gets into some things that really bug me about The Walking Dead, such as why the hell don’t they obtain a pack of guard dogs to protect the camp?! Why are they so afraid of forming larger groups – are we seriously supposed to believe that not one single character on the show has read Day of the Triffids?! But I digress…)

The book is about much more than zombies, though – it’s a wide-ranging satire on the current state of global politics, international relations, military endeavours, medicine, celebrity, the world of work, and society in general (two notable exceptions that I thought should have been given more coverage: religion, and scientific research). Some parts are so specific to our time that they’ll probably seem quite dated very quickly – for example, Beth joked about the “undead” part of the “any resemblance to actual persons, living or undead, is purely coincidental” legal statement, but some real-life celebs are totally recognisable in one of the more humorous chapters of the book (plus one well-known and much-loved politician, who makes an appearance in one of the more serious chapters, in a very powerful and moving scene that has definitely stayed with me).

I’m guessing that the upcoming film is going to be very different from the book; it’s not really filmable as-is, due mainly to the lack of recurring characters. It would probably have been next to impossible to find enough well-known actors to sign up for five minutes of screen-time each to justify the huge budget a faithful adaptation would necessitate… but I’m sure I’ll go and see it anyway, even though there’s no possible way it’ll be as good as Shaun of the Dead.

The next book I read was The Passage, by Justin Cronin. I know what you’re thinking – “why on earth would she read another vampire trilogy after the whole Strain/Fall/Night Eternal fiasco?! She doesn’t even like vampires that much, at least not compared to zombies!” (you were thinking that, right?) Well, the answer is that it wasn’t my fault. While I was buying WWZ, the woman who works in my local book shop recommended The Passage, saying that it was “excellent, but really really creepy – do NOT read this book if you’re home alone!” I didn’t ask for further details and, suitably cautious, didn’t start the book until Mr E Man came back from Montreal and then finished the night shifts he worked on next. Disappointingly, it really wasn’t all that scary, but I did thoroughly enjoy it and will definitely buy the next two books. It was much, much better than the aforementioned vampire trilogy – much better written, much better characterization, and getting more into the psychological aspects of survival (the story begins with the outbreak itself, then jumps forward a few decades into the much more interesting post-apocalyptic phase). It did get a bit silly in the middle, but redeemed itself by the end, and finished with a massive cliffhanger. I’ll be buying part two in the very near future, I think, after I’ve worked my through some of the piles of unread books in my house!

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A little light, cheerful beach reading for a tropical holiday

I didn’t really expect the third and final book I read on vacation to fit the same theme, but somehow it does. Yes, I know I’m late on this one, but I finally got around to reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In this case the catastrophe that befalls mankind (well, the USA, at least) is a drastic fall in the birth rate, and the novel deals with what happens to the status of women in a world where fertility is a rare and precious commodity. The story unfolds from the point of view of a single woman, and gradually expands from a narration of her daily routine to a much bigger picture of what has happened to society as a whole. I definitely found this book to be by far the scariest of the three – recent statements about women from some sectors of the society to my immediate South have really been quite terrifying, much more so than the thought of fictional monsters. OK, so I did have one nightmare per “camping in the woods” episode of the first season of The Walking Dead (seriously! Get some dogs!), but it’s The Handmaid’s Tale that continues to haunt my waking thoughts.

Interestingly, Handmaid and Passage both employ the same device – a post-hoc analysis of some of the book’s events at an academic conference set a few years ahead of the novel. I wonder if Cronin was consciously influenced by Atwood?

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Right, back to the fire and brimstone final family Christmas party preparations. Happy Solstice, everyone!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in blog buddies, book review, current affairs, plagues, silliness, technology, television, virology. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to It’s the end of the world as we know it

  1. Grant says:

    Speaking of apocalypses, I guess you’re already familiar with the Canadian Medical Association Journal article on the effect of the Mayan Doomsday on clinical trial outcomes.

  2. Paul S. says:

    I sure hope the apocalypse isn’t coming tomorrow. I was looking forward to Christmas, and some well-earned time off. Plus, I want to see the whole family together again when my brother flies in on Saturday.

    On the other hand, it would make the fact that I still haven’t finished my Christmas shopping pretty much irrelevant.

  3. Elizabeth H says:

    I read Margaret Atwood’s book this year (finally! the wait at the library for it was months long) and really enjoyed it. Sounds like you did too.
    And thank you for the book reviews, I plan to check them out. It’s just in time for my vacation to Belize…some vampires and zombies are just what I will need to balance the serene vistas from my balcony on the beach!

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Paul, there are definitely pros and cons, aren’t there?

    Elizabeth, yes I did enjoy it! It was a gift from my sister, which moved the book from my mental “I should read that some time” pile to an actual physical pile of books. I want to read more Atwood now!

    Have a great time in Belize – my friend went there and loved it. She brought a friend home with her though, so be careful! (sorry – I wouldn’t usually have mentioned that until someone gets back from their holiday, but this time it just fit the theme so nicely!)

  5. Yeurrgh – did you have to remind me about Bob the Botfly? Yuck.

    Did you like Frank Herbert’s The White Plague? Pretty much the only one in this genre I’ve read, although I will confess to having tackled The Handmaid’s Tale and hated it. But I’m not an Atwood fan (I’ve read Surfacing twice and wondered why afterwards each time).

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I haven’t read it, but it’s now on my list – thanks!

  7. chall says:

    Atwood is awesome! It seems like people around me are reading Handmaid’s tale now, woner if there was a blurb about it on some website or so? I read it quite some time ago…. and love it. That said, I’m a fan of Atwood 😉

    THe Passage is on my night stand (in Swedish) and I like it so far. World War Z in the book shelf waiting for some time. I can highly recommend “Dead at daybreak” by Deon Meyer – not a zombie or apocalyspe book but a mystery/police book with more personality and soceity ties set in south Africa. I thought of my fave Rebus (Ian rankin) and the descriptions of Sctoland/UK and all that while reading those books. Very interested to me since I’m not all that savy on the south African history (I know a little though) and the present day.

    Lastly, Plague Inc! I have one word for you: DOUBLE COLD RESISTANCE GENES! (OK, four words) That’s how you do with Greenland 🙂 First time I played it I infected the whole world except Greenland and…. Sweden… yeah…. It’s also very different depending on where you start. I’ve gotten the best results in middle East and subsahara. Hardest and not great results so far starting in my precious Scandinavia. It’s very fun dealing with the prions and parasites after virus and bacteria.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      The time I eventually beat the first level, I started in China and had the disease spread by birds. Russia also works surprisingly well, and then the disease is cold-resistant from the beginning. But yeah, I usually start in central Africa because it takes longer for anyone to notice and start work on a cure.

      Parts of the game are almost as depressing as real life, if you let yourself actually think about them…

      • chall says:

        oh they are. I haven’t made it to spread without the last resistance gene even if I started in Russia…. need to retry that. I had an interesting simulation with spreading out of Australia and making it water borne and couple the water with “something that I can’t remember right now” blood? hmmm… they intertwined really well in the mixing table.

        (I’m such a geek. And it annoys me to no end that the household champion by points is not me; the excellent microbiologist with 100000 credits in virology and bacterology but rather the ‘other one with no biological degree’. Go figure. 😉

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          Heh! I know I tend to over-think parts of it – e.g. I find I have a hard time letting myself start the fungal level (on which I’m currently stuck) with anything other than respiratory symptoms / airborne transmission, because that’s what most real fungal infections are like IIRC (it’s been a long time since I studied any microbes other than viruses!) But of course the game doesn’t necessarily work that way. Maybe I should make Mr E Man try, to see if formal microbiology training really is a detriment – maybe a blood-borne fungus that makes you hurl is the way forward?!

  8. P.S. 8:56 PM Eastern Time. World has not ended. Thinking I need to get moving on stuff I would do before world ends. Where’s that Ferrari anyway?

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  10. nina says:

    we got emails from the US on the 21 December NZ time (20 Dec US time) to check if the world still existed in the NZ future. Must have been the first time the US realized NZ is actually ahead of them.

    A handmaid’s tale is scary. I read it a few years ago and every time a political misstep takes place (pretty much every day) I look at my life and think to myself “At least I will have some happy memories when it comes the time of being a baby machine”. That book really had a longlasting effect on me.

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