Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Disease in fantasy

When I was fourteen, I read a book called The Black Death, which is now out of print. It described how the titular plague might spread through the modern United States, and the descriptions of its effects – on the cellular level – were fascinating, like an arms race.

That began my love of microbiology, and ever since then I’ve liked learning about diseases. Not to mention writing about them, especially in the context of my other fascination, fantasy.

In pre-modern societies, people weren’t often aware of the exact means of transmission, so diseases could be passed more easily. Medieval cities also tended to have poor water treatment and sewer systems, both of which contributed to the spread of disease. Port towns were especially vulnerable because sailors and shipments could bring infections from afar; even something as simple as flushing ballast tanks could introduce foreign microbes into the water supply.

People still had ways to deal with disease. As far back as prehistorical times, it was known that certain plants and plant compounds could be used to treat illnesses – the athelas of The Lord of the Rings, for instance. People with diseases could also be isolated – for instance, sent to leper colonies or sanatoriums. That kind of stigmatization happens even in modern times – as experienced by the main character of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul's Bane.

Diseases in fantasy can be very interesting to devise. My favorite part is naming them –wasteaway, the crawling stripes, coldfever, milkeye (myxomatosis, which in Watership Down is called the “white blindness”), stoneskin, fingerfall (leprosy), the red cough (tuberculosis).

Then there’s the method of transmission. Diseases in fantasy can be transmitted in bizarre ways – through flies or butterflies or even plant pollen. They can be spread by fomites (inanimate objects). And, of course, they’re transmitted by hosts or carriers – who may or may not be aware of the fact that they’re spreading a disease.

In a fantasy world, that might even result in the host being changed into a walking repository for the disease, able to do little else but eat, to keep the organisms alive, and travel, to spread them.

Or the disease could be something that everyone in a society is born with. Star Trek: Voyager did a pretty good job of that with an alien race called the Vidiians, which was completely ravaged by “the Phage”. As a result, their bodies are a patchwork of different types of grafts and organs, scavenged from other species.

The disease might be caused by a curse, or it could be something cyclical – people start to become sick at dawn, are in the throes of the illness at noon, which is when some die, and recover as dusk approaches. The night is usually filled with feverish (no pun intended) activity, to prepare for the inevitable sickness ahead.

Disease in fantasy, as in the real world, can be heartbreaking and horrific… and extremely interesting.


Anonymous said...

Army camps were one place where diseases flourish. Men in close proximity (often sharing tents or sleeping in the cold hard ground) exposure to the elements, poor food (ancient armies foraged for their provisions), the stress of combat, and of course wounds, all led to the outbreak of disease.

Many armies (defenders as well as attackers, a city under siege with without clean water is also a breeding ground for disease) fell not to an enemies weapons or stratagems but to microscopic invaders who decimated their ranks.

Which brings me to the idea of a "scorch earth" tactic in fantasy may also include the use of infected bodies or poisoned/contaminated food stores. Done very well in Warcraft 3 btw, as well as a disease breakout in the early years of World of Warcraft (although that also included the deliberately passing on of the disease by players who could withstand its symptoms.)

Anonymous said...


Sorry about that.

LM Preston said...

It's a great platform for adventure, tension, and fighting an unbeatable foe.

writtenwyrdd said...

Another means of disease being spread is viral control of an organism--rather like the person who you posit is little more than a walkign disease factory. There is some indication that viruses can sometimes cause an organism to behave in a manner that benefits the virus. I recall something about an insect which has changed it's behavior so it will be caught and killed and eaten by the next stage host of a parasite...so I am sure that a virus could do similar.

Shannon said...

It's a shame that Fantasy doesn't make use of disease more often. There are so many variations, so many interesting strains, that when you throw a fantasy element into it, really ups the ante. Personally, I'd find a novel about a plague far more fascinating than yet another tirade against a Dark Lord!

Marian Perera said...

ralfast - great point. One reason Napoleon's invasion of Russia failed was due to outbreaks of typhus in his army.

Not to mention that in ancient times, armies would have used horses and other animals, meaning they would have been at risk of zoonotic diseases as well.

And siege conditions would be just as likely to encourage disease among the defenders - even before the attackers started hurling dead bodies over the walls.

I also love the idea of poisoned food stores. Or even the deliberate infection of people (or symptomless carriers) who are later sent among the unsuspecting populace.

Marian Perera said...

LM - Exactly, an unstoppable foe. Especially given that many people in medieval times were simply not informed about disease. They might resort to useless "cures" or flee in panic (spreading the plague).

I have an idea for such a plague being caused deliberately - i.e. biological warfare - by a scientist trying to save her country from conquest by a powerful foreign empire. It's a nice ethical dilemna too.

Marian Perera said...

Writtenwyrdd - "Another means of disease being spread is viral control of an organism--rather like the person who you posit is little more than a walking disease factory."

I can't be sure of this, but I think one of the many, many races in Jack Chalker's Well World series is a sentient virus which turns its hosts into its mouthpieces, using them to deliver terms to anyone standing in its way.

And you're right about some parasites deliberately altering host behavior so as to infect others. I can't recall the insect-infecting virus you mentioned, though I've heard of it before. Rabies is another great example, though - animal bites spread the disease.

Marian Perera said...

Shannon - Probably because disease tends to be unglamorous and can't be vanquished with a mighty swing of a magic sword. :)

But yes, a plague is far more likely to hook me than an umpteenth Chosen One. A historical fantasy could make great use of that.

Mary Witzl said...

The names for diseases always sound so poetic and mysterious, even if they're awful -- especially the old ones like scarlet fever, erysipelas and lockjaw. I love the sound of 'stoneskin' and 'fingerfall' -- not that I want to catch them.