The Big Idea: Nancy Kress
Your sweet adorable pet: What if it was a raging vector of viral infection? Maybe that’s not something you actually want to spend time thinking about, but that’s okay, since Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Nancy Kress already thought about it for you. The result: Dogs, which Publishers Weekly is lauding as “a spine-chilling, suspense-laden story,” featuring Man’s Best Friend becoming a whole lot less friendly.
Why did Kress think of this in the first place? Well, like some viruses one can think of, this story had a long incubation period. Here’s the author to trace the vector of infection back to the source.
In 1998, four years after it first came out, I read Richard Preston’s non-fiction bestseller, The Hot Zone, which harrowingly details the importation of monkeys infected with Ebola into the United States. The monkeys were housed in an animal holding facility in Reston, Virginia, destined for research by pharmaceutical companies, when they began to die with the characteristic, horrifying “bleeding out” of Ebola. Both the CDC and USAMRIID, the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, were called in to deal with the crisis. All the monkeys were destroyed.
I was riveted. Genetic engineering had already begun to take firm hold of my writing, both as potential benefit and as potentially monstrous bioweapon. But now I expanded that interest to naturally occurring pathogens that could be just as deadly. What if Ebola in its most dangerous form had been transmitted to monkey-house workers? What if it had gotten out into the general population?
Some novels have a long gestation period. Over the next five years, the topic didn’t leave my mind. I knew I wanted to write about an animal-carried plague, but I didn’t want the bubonic-plague model, in which fleas on rats carry the disease but aren’t much affected themselves. Then avian-flu broke out in Asia. This was closer to what I wanted; chickens could both become infected and infect humans, although only if humans had close, prolonged contact with the chickens. More interesting to me was the response of various Asian governments: quarantine and destroy the birds. But some element was missing in my mind.
It was supplied by both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
The attack on the World Trade Towers, which so sharply clarified the bitterness of Arab jihadists for the United States, profoundly discouraged me. When young, I’d lived for a year in an Arab country (Tunisia) and had developed a liking for Arab culture, as well as a respect for the complicated, tangled ways that family, business, politics, and religion mesh in that part of the world. It’s utterly different from the way things get accomplished in the United States. I knew I couldn’t write about it from an Arab point of view, but I wanted now to write about it in some way.
Hurricane Katrina dismayed everyone with how badly FEMA handled the crisis. I read the angry, post-hurricane interviews with people who had been badly let down by a flat-footed government more interested in its own prestige than it protecting its citizens.
Then, in 2003, I got a dog.
Who can say how disparate elements finally, after years of simmering in the well of unconscious, come together in a writer’s brain? All at once I saw how a biological pathogen, a government’s ineptitude in the face of emergency, and a person involved with Arab culture, could come together in my book. The novel’s heroine Tessa Sanderson Mahjoub is not an Arab; she is the widow of one. Dogs can carry viruses that make them profoundly dangerous to human beings, not because diseases easily jump species barriers (they don’t) but because retroviruses like rabies can cross the blood-brain barrier and change canine behavior. Thirty-five million American households harbor 65 million dogs. How would the United States government respond to a plague among domestic dogs?
Just as important, how would dog owners, pretty fanatic people themselves, respond to interference with their beloved pets? Spot and Max and Cosette are not regarded in anything close to the same way as medical-research monkeys or Asian chickens.
In working out the plot of Dogs, I wanted to present all sides of the complex issues involved, the chief of which is the good of the majority versus the rights of the individual. In any real plague situation, that’s the conflict that will surface. I’m not sure we’ll handle it particularly well. Dogs, like much SF, is a sort of rehearsal for how that crisis might go down.