The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
This year’s flu season is a bad one. Every year we go through this time of year, and the influenza virus travels through from person to person… and this year in the US, it has killed 53 children already. A mere droplet in the bucket compared to the 1918 flu season… one hundred years ago. Seems like ancient history, doesn’t it? Epidemics like that couldn’t happen again, could they? We’ve had several panics in recent decades: swine flu, bird flu, Ebola… but nothing has come of them.
Let me take you back in time with me to another world, another place. To a thriving city, several of them, in fact, which died in terror and disease. Millions of people, possibly, although estimates are uncertain in the face of so little evidence, and decimated is the wrong word. Decimation was the killing of one-tenth of the population por les encourages les autres. A mere one-tenth. When the opposite happens and ninety percent die, civilizations vanish from the face of the earth and all that are left are legends of horrible curses and places that no human will venture lest they also be cursed and afflicted. I’ve been reading about epidemics since I was a girl, so when I came across The Lost City of the Monkey God, I found it an interesting book, although the sources of the plague that laid the cities of Mosquitia low are purely speculative: there is no record remaining, save only stone, of the thousands, perhaps millions of people who lived and perished there.
It’s hardly the first time I’ve contemplated diving off ancient platforms for story-building exercises. A lecture I attended on the Maya some five years ago caught my attention, as well. The long-gone civilizations of the American jungle are still poorly understood, and if you are writing science fiction, give a great place to start for aliens. It’s nothing new: first contact stories of the humans meeting might well be told again if we ever meet another species. And I doubt such a xeno-diverse encounter would do any better than those which took place Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens.
Stories born of tragedy are an effort to understand that pain. To come to grips with what happened. Preston’s book lays the blame squarely on the Europeans who may have brought disease to kill the innocent cities in the jungle he was trying to find along with the team he was writing for. The narrative of our time is ‘white guilt’ whether or not that story is fact or fiction. We are convinced it was all our fault, even in the face of the facts. The explorers who came from Europe to the Americas didn’t understand germ theory. They or their ancestors had been scourged and devoured by the epidemics of plague and smallpox, which trace their roots over the Silk Roads into Asia. Epidemics feel no guilt, they simply exist to provide microscopic organisms a method of reproduction and conveyance from one area to another. Some of those parasitic pathogens are too efficient a killer, and burn themselves out of existence by killing 90% of their hosts. Others, like influenza, adapt constantly and flow through the human population causing misery but little death relative to the amount of microorganisms involved.
The plague? Still exists. The White Death, that romantic name given to the consumption of bodies by tuberculosis? Poised for a comeback as it develops multi-drug resistance to the weapons deployed against it. Smallpox? in theory, eradicated, but rumors still whisper of samples hidden in labs that could possibly be… mislaid, and thus emerge again onto an unsuspecting world. The next evolution of an epidemic? Might be from a direction we just don’t expect.
And this makes it easy to write horror, because it’s horrible to contemplate. But we know from history and archaeology that it’s not a new story. There’s nothing original about John Ringo’s Last Centurion, but I’ll still tell you to go read it. It’s awkward, and not entirely a novel, but it’s riveting and chilling and very very truthy. As a plot, it’s been done time and again, because it’s all too relevant and possible.
The ending of the Lost City of the Monkey God drew hasty conclusions from scant fieldwork, and didn’t draw any at all from the disease that struck nearly all of the team that ventured into the jungle to do that work with the city they found through use of modern technology. I think there is far more to that story, but also, there is much there to be speculated about into fiction, for someone who wasn’t afraid to tell an old, old story in a new and fresh way. What if there were more than one cache of statues left? What if it wasn’t intended to propitiate angry gods? What if the leshmaniasis which disfigures so horribly played a role? What it…
This is how we humans deal with unimaginable tragedy. We make stories about it. Legends spring up from the mists of the forgotten jungle that twines around vainglorious stone temples that were meant to endure eternally. What once was, will be. There is nothing new under the sun.