About a month ago, not long after coming back from a work trip to far western rural Uganda, I came down with a bitching fever. “African malaria!” I moaned, dragging myself to the clinic. “Eh,” said the doctor. “Dengue. You probably got it here; it’s going around. Drink lots of fluids, and come back if you start bleeding from any orifices.”
“Dengue? We’re standing by for medevac!” said the insurance company. (They’re based in Sydney; they don’t see many haemorraghic fevers. They got excited.)
“Oh, dengue,” said everyone else. “My wife’s brother-in-law got that. My secretary’s cousin had it. Recovery time? Oh no, he didn’t recover. He died.”
The thing about living and working in the global South is that you get a good understanding of just how prevalent fatal communicable diseases are. Deaths aren’t a one-in-a-million thing, freak accidents of nature. Not: did you hear about that girl who came back from Mexico with a worm in her brain?! No, deaths just crop up in everyday conversation. Name a foodborne, waterborne, airborne disease, and someone you know has had it. Dengue, malaria, typhoid, paratyphoid, TB, cholera, dysentery, zika, yellow fever, hepatitis A through to E (did you know it goes up to E?), SARS, bird flu, all manner of worms and parasites and amoebae. It’s just what happens when you have dodgy water and sanitation, limited access to healthcare facilities, and poor food safety regulations.
You have to assume similar conditions apply to the pre-modern worlds of historical fantasies. And yet, what do you never see? Right.
For fun, I went through all the deaths on Game of Thrones through Season 5 (probably there’ve been at least 20 more by now; I’ve stopped watching), and classified them broadly by type:
|Cause of Death||Frequency|
|other violent death||12|
|thrown from a height||3|
|misc non-violent (entombed etc)||3|
|pregnancy and childbirth||0|
Nope, the most freakish physical attribute of the historical fantasy protagonist isn’t their catlike vertical leap or ability to absorb multiple blows to the head without CTE. It’s their immunity to death by diarrhoea. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly okay with trading historicity for a compelling story. It’s just that… well, if you specialise in killing off vast numbers of named characters, I’m surprised none of them have ever suddenly died of a communicable disease, throwing a spanner into the works of whatever elaborately engineered plan the rest of their faction had come up with. I know, it’s not as dramatic as a stabbing. But it’s also a rich, mostly-untapped source of dramatic irony: you can be the best in every aspect it’s possible for a person to control—the perfect warrior, the cleverest sage—and still get undone in the most unglamorous, most human of ways.
Anyway, about a week after recovering from dengue, I came across this passage in a SF novel that made me laugh:
Ever since the Ebola attack at the UN summit, there had been a dramatic end to the prohibitions on biological warfare. These days, it was fight fire witih fire, and now it seemed every country was bragging about the bugs they could grow. Super-polio, rabies-13, dengue, hanta, yellowpox, and God only knew what else.
Now, I know she probably just googled ‘scary viruses’ and made a few up, but: nobody needs to bother weaponising dengue. It and other communicable diseases are already a fact of life for a large proportion of the world’s people. And I find it curious that given how prominent these diseases are on the human landscape, both now and in the past, we don’t see more of them in historical fantasy and historical fiction.
“Poised on the brink of global conquest, our hero, Alexander the Great… suddenly died from complications of typhoid.”
No? A bit anticlimactic, you say? But that’s what happened. That’s how life is.
Personally speaking, I love a good, bitter tragedy, rich with pointlessness. I love sobbing into the pages: “Oh, if only he had managed to—!” (Must be some genetically inherited preference from the pain-loving culture that came up with epic sobfests like Farewell, My Concubine.) And there’s no greater source of pointless pain than the roulette wheel of disease.
I can see how it might not be for everyone! But why not give it a whirl and have one of your next protagonists kick the bucket with a communicable disease? I promise that when I’m laid up with my next bout of dengue, I’ll read it.