The Long View: In Search of a Usable Apocalypse

John never thought much of the increasingly popular zombie apocalypse. He did do a pretty favorable review of World War Z, but he regarded zombies are mere meat puppets. Nonetheless, John was a scholar of the apocalyptic, a subject has mostly become a matter of folk religion in America. Recently, the zombie apocalypse is pretty popular, but in the late nineties, the viral outbreak [minus re-animation] weighed more heavily on people's minds.

Pestilence is one of the Four Horsemen, but the ancient world may have feared disease less than you might think. In Roman times, smallpox and measles didn't really get going until the middle Empire, and malaria didn't really affect Republican Rome. The real age of pestilence doesn't start until after the Age of Exploration, which brought more regular contact between different populations. There is some evidence to think that not only syphillis, but tungiasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and typhus were brought from the New World. Montezuma's revenge indeed.

There is a great bit at the end here about Jack London's apocalyptic fiction. I had never heard of these stories before. The Call of the Wild this ain't.

In Search of a Usable Apocalypse

On a Saturday in 1995, I went to see the film "Outbreak." I liked it. It stars Dustin Hoffman as an Army biological warfare scientist who defeats an epidemic of a terrible new disease from Africa, a virus carried to the U.S. by an infected-but-adorable monkey. Hoffman is getting better as he takes himself less seriously. Donald Sutherland's gleefully villainous portrayal of the general determined to stop the disease by incinerating the people infected is worth the price of admission.

(The attraction of the film is not lessened by the fact it is almost identical in plot to the film adaptation released a year or two previously of Robert Heinlein's novel, "The Puppet Masters." In that film, the part of the plague is taken by mind-controlling extraterrestrial leeches. It too stars Donald Sutherland, and one or two other people in "Outbreak.")

Monkeys and villains aside, the movie contains a number of signs of the times. For instance, a long-running government conspiracy to cover up the disease is revealed. Or maybe the conspiracy was to cover up the fact a cure had been found for a certain strain of the virus. Or the fact there was a department doing this kind of research at all. Anyway, Washington was responsible for it. The writers, no doubt, have been watching the popular FOX series, "The X-Files," most of whose episodes posit some vast, secret malefaction on the part of the U.S. government. The series is made in Canada, which might suggest an anti-American conspiracy right there, since Donald Sutherland is from Newfoundland. But no, that way madness lies. Let's just concentrate on this killer-virus business.

Consider these two television listing for the evening after I saw "Outbreak":

"Earth 2: The colonists discover another group of settlers who have been weakened by a deadly virus."

"Lois and Clark: A deranged scientist plots to release a deadly virus. Lois's attraction to a government agent irks Clark."

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