Author: mak791


As “the terrifying true story of the origins of the ebola virus,” The Hot Zone seems to cross the border between science non-fiction and horror fiction. One way Preston achieves the horrifying effect is by creating a sense of imminent danger, well represented by the biohazard sign and biosafety level he presents at the very beginning of the story. I had no doubt in his presentation of these laboratory jargons… until I discovered the biohazard sign in our health and wellness centre (I was like WHAT?)

Preston relates the biohazard sign with biosafety level 4, along with the caption “DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT WEARING SPACE SUIT”. The wikipedia entry of hazard symbol gives us some background information on the biohazard sign:

The article explained that over 40 symbols were drawn up by Dow artists, and all of the symbols investigated had to meet a number of criteria: “(i) striking in form in order to draw immediate attention; (ii) unique and unambiguous, in order not to be confused with symbols used for other purposes; (iii) quickly recognizable and easily recalled; (iv) easily stenciled; (v) symmetrical, in order to appear identical from all angles of approach; and (vi) acceptable to groups of varying ethnic backgrounds.” The chosen scored the best on nationwide testing for memorability.

The “striking,” “quickly recognizable” feature of the sign seems to serve the author’s purpose well. Was the sign designed to warn against extremely hazardous biomaterial that corresponds to the killer virus in this story? Then how are we supposed to explain the biohazard sign in our own health and wellness center?

According to the wikipedia entry (again), It is used in the labeling of biological materials that carry a significant health risk, including viral samples and used hypodermic needles. Fortunately, the one I saw the other day seems to indicate the disposal of needles used for vaccination. So it is indeed something that we can easily spot in daily life, not only in some confidential, extremely detrimental laboratory situations.

Then how valid is the caption with space suit? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publication gives us specific instructions for each biosafety level. At level 4:

While the laboratory is operational, personnel must enter and exit
the laboratory through the clothing change and shower rooms except
during emergencies. All personal clothing must be removed in the outer
clothing change room. All persons entering the laboratory must use
laboratory clothing, including undergarments, pants, shirts, jumpsuits,
shoes, and gloves (as appropriate). All persons leaving the laboratory
must take a personal body shower. Used laboratory clothing must
not be removed from the inner change room through the personal
shower. These items must be treated as contaminated materials and
decontaminated before laundering.

Obviously there is no mentioning of the term “space suit,” and the actual laboratory clothing looks like this:

It does look pretty similar to space suit–what do you think? Nonetheless it is apparent that Preston intentionally chose to describe this laboratory clothing as a space suit. What effect does it create?

Preston’s own reinterpretation of laboratory, scientific knowledge seems to play a significant role in situating this novel between two seemingly incompatible genres. I hope the information above helps better understand how the author tackles hard scientific knowledge and reproduces it throughout the story.

Take care 🙂

Black Hole

In Black Hole, the central characters are on the cusp of adulthood, prone to emotional turmoil and indecision. They make mistakes, and the consequences of those mistakes often seem gravely inescapable, like ‘the end of the world’. Chris makes the mistake of having unprotected sex with Rob, and once Chris realizes she has “the bug”, she feels profoundly isolated and ashamed. Then, when she gets caught cutting class and her parents become stricter and impose a curfew, Chris is completely overwhelmed. This small series of mistakes makes Chris feel like a complete failure with no hope of redemption. She runs away from home with Rob to escape the situation, and the note she leaves for her parents mentions plans to go to California even though Chris only moves into the nearby woods with the other “burnout, sick kids”. Does this tendency to spiral out of control instead of moving past mistakes make these adolescents more susceptible to disease? Do they themselves contribute to the devastating effects of the disease?

This book does not confront the disease’s origin the way many of our previously discussed literature does. The disease itself is otherworldly, and it has a similarly nebulous origin. No blame is placed on a specific group of people for spreading or bringing the disease. The disease seems to come from a void, perhaps extraterrestrial. The title references a phenomenon that exists in only outer space, and the people affected by the disease congregate around a place they call “Planet Xeno”. This place is buried in the woods, and the fact that so many characters take comfort in/seek natural spaces might be further evidence that the disease affects humans but originated from something distinctly inhuman. 


Apart from its grotesque outward symptoms, the disease is very bizarre in that not a single person shares the same symptom with others. Rob has an additional mouth on his chest that utters strange sound and words against his will; Chris, although having contracted the disease from Rob, has a different symptom, her back and foot cut open. Eliza has a tail, and Keith discovers tadpole-like bumps around his ribs. The guys who hang out in the “pit,” secluded from the town due to their deformed appearance, all look hideous but in their own unique way.  At the end of the novel is a page from yearbook, where each student features unique symptom.

These symptoms have only one thing in common: mutation from what is considered “normal.” The disease that ostensibly distinguishes the ill from the sound degrades a popular, straight-A student into a social outcast.Why is it significant that the characters suffer from their own unique symptoms that make them socially isolated? Are these differences random, or does each mutation affect each character for specific reasons? What is Burns trying to convey by portraying a yearbook page in which everyone suffers from the disease, looking apparently different from one another? How can we relate it to the nature of adolescence? 

Last but not least, It would be impossible to discuss Black Hole without bringing up its use of imagery. Images are often repeated and juxtaposed, acting as a method of foreshadowing or emphasizing the main theme of the novel: a black hole.

The novel begins with a puzzling account of a Biology class in which Keith looks into a dissected frog’s back:

“I was looking at a hole… a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up.. and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness”

With this are parallel images of a frog’s dissected back, the cut in Chris’s foot, Chris’s back, and a hand covering genitals. With the story of the frog’s back acting as a starting point of the novel, the other three “black holes” are further elaborated upon and explained as the novel progresses. Interestingly, these are all images that Keith directly witnesses during his own narrative. These images seem to foreshadow all the major relationships developed during the novel: Keith helped Chris when she cut her foot in the woods; Chris’s mutation was caused by her sexual relations to Rob; the hand over genitals is an image from Eliza and Keith’s affair.

If all these are black holes, what message is the novel conveying? What is the significance of having a hand covering the genitals, as opposed to leaving it uncovered? What about the usage of a frog in particular?

Another recurring image is the black hole itself. In the very first black hole depicted in the Biology class scene, all the major images central to the novel’s plot are included: the snake, gun, tadpoles, the frog, bones, alcohol, drugs, water, etc. But why is Burns providing us with so many hints? It is remarkable to think that the whole novel was thoroughly thought out from the beginning.


Looking forward to the discussion tomorrow,

Annie, Joohee, Mina




In parallel–Bhopal and Khaufpur

As we all know, Sinha’s Animal’s People recounts a story of a manmade disaster and its victims in the city of Khaufpur, a fictional setting that is based on an actual incident–the Bhopal gas tragedy. Last session we discussed the purposes and effects of this book as a fiction based on a true story, and I thought it might be worth comparing the two stories side by side, noting the similarities and differences that the author might have made on purpose while creating this fictional account of the devastating disaster.

Among the subplots of this story, the legal battle between Khaufpuris and the Kampani is crucial to the plot development. There were ongoing legal issues during the Bhopal tragedy as well, and the actual incident and the fiction have many things in common. The lawsuit was a long battle, which ended up benefiting only the company. The government turned its back on people whom it was supposed to protect. As also mentioned in the novel, the company refused to reveal any toxicological information on the chemicals as it was a part of “trade secrets”. The details can be found here: “Insight to Bhopal Gas Tragedy: A case lost before trial”

Reagan and Reaganomics

As the subtitle of this play suggests, Angels in America portrays several themes that were prevalent in the American society during the 80s and 90s. One of the conspicuous themes is politics, which is well represented in the dialogue between Louis and Belize:

Louis: But I mean in spite of all this the thing about America, I think, is that ultimately we’re different from every other nation on earth, in that, with people here of every race, we cant–Ultimately what defines us isn’t race, but politics. (Act 3 Scene 2)

The politics in this play mostly revolves around Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the US (1981-1989), famous for his distinctive economic policy. The play shows characters that are either for or against Reagan: wealthy Republicans and those like Louis who shows clear antipathy against Reagan. Understanding his economic policy, a.k.a. Reaganomics, will help elucidate this political dichotomy.

Feast during plague–why is it so wrong

In Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, it is clear that rejoicing during the time of plague is considered rebellious and immoral, to the extent of “lawlessness” (103). But as I was reading the play, I couldn’t help but ask “why is it so wrong?” Loss of beloved ones is surely a mournful thing, but on the societal level, why would it be so grievous when someone dies from plague? Contemplating on the meaning of death presented in this play, I came to the conclusion that the reactions of the readers might differ significantly according to their cultural background, especially how each society views death caused by a plague.

Obviously, sudden death from a plague is deemed negative in many countries. Russian audience, for example, might have found it easy to empathize with the overriding theme in this play. I found a research article in which the writer studies traditional beliefs of Russian peasants regarding death:

The Russian peasants have, from ancient times, divided their dead into two major categories. On the one hand are the “natural” dead, who die of old age at the time appointed by God. On the other are the “unnatural” or “unclean” dead, … this category of dead included those who had met a violent death at the hands of an assassin, those who had died accidentally, by drowning or falling into a swamp for example, by getting lost in the forest or being frozen to death. It also included those struck by lightning or those who had fallen victim to some plague or epidemic. The bodies of such unfortunates were often never recovered and were left to rot unburied or were buried on the spot where the victim met his or her end.

(Elizabeth A. Warner, Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices Concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol’niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part I: The Restless Dead, Wizards and Spirit Beings)


This passage suggests that in Russian perspective, the death from a plague falls into the category of “unnatural” or “unclean” death, which is against the will of God. Scapegoats of the plague were deemed to be “unfortunates.”

On the other hand, death from a plague was equated with martyrdom in Islamic culture, as mentioned in our previous reading, “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death” by Stearns. Unlike the Russians who believed the death to be untimely and against God’s wishes, Muslims regarded it as “[giving oneself] wholly to the God against [one’s] own desires” (“Martyrdom” from Oxford Islamic Studies Online). According to the article cited above, those martyrs would be rewarded after their deaths:

Unlike ordinary Muslims, after they die martyrs do not have to undergo the intimidating review of their deeds by the angels Munkar and Nakir. A martyr proceeds directly to the highest station in paradise, near the throne of God (“Martyrdom”).

I’m not trying to make an argument that the Muslims would have thrown a party when someone died from a plague as a martyr–for most of the time, death is the last thing to be wanted. But it was interesting for me to discover that some societies had different beliefs from others regarding deaths from a plague, and to imagine how readers from various cultural background might have reacted differently after reading this play. I hope those articles have provided you with some food for thought.

– Mina

Discussion questions on Arthur Mervyn (from A2C 5th Floor Lounge – aka the Ballroom)

Our previous conveners’ post casts light on altruism shown by Dr. Stevens and his wife at the very beginning of the novel. In Chapter 1 of Arthur Mervyn, they decide to take the eponymous character with yellow fever “into [their] protection and care,” although they were aware of the “consequences” (Brown 6). This altruistic behavior is indeed unusual during an outbreak of infectious disease, especially when we look back on our previous novel, A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe, in which the narrator delivers stories of inhumane incidents.

Altruism of the sound toward the sick is one thing, but the latter’s concern for the former is another. Quoting H.F. of A Journal of the Plague Year:

But very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her, and pull’d her down also; and getting up first, master’d her, and kiss’d her; and which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the Plague, and why should not she have it as well as he (Defoe 128)

The “zombie” syndrome—the “wicked inclination in those that were infected to infect others” (Defoe 124)—depicted in Defoe’s novel doesn’t exist in Arthur Mervyn. On the contrary, Arthur Mervyn strives not to harm his host:

He suppressed his feelings and struggled to maintain a cheerful tone and countenance, that he might prevent that anxiety which the sight of his sufferings produced in us. He was perpetually furnishing reasons why his nurse should leave him alone, and betrayed dissatisfaction whenever she entered his apartment.

How can we explain the difference of behaviors portrayed in the two novels? Did Arthur Mervyn’s altruism simply derive from gratitude toward his benefactor? Or does it have underlying religious and/or cultural background? How did the infected people in London differ from Arthur Mervyn in terms of economic and social status?

Another notable feature of Arthur Mervyn is the novel’s portrayal of women. On one hand, females seem to emerge as figures of power, in charge of major decisions that determine the plot. When deciding whether or not to take in Arthur Mervyn, Dr. Stevens allows “the advice of my wife to govern” (Brown, 6) his decision. Arthur Mervyn himself chooses to leave his home because a female (Betty Lawrence) has overpowered him:

No doubt her own interest would be, to this woman, the supreme law, and this would be considered as irreconcilably hostile to mine. My father would easily be moulded to her purpose, and that act easily extorted from him which should reduce me to beggary. … The house in which I lived was no longer my own, nor even my father’s (Brown, 16). 

On the other hand, Arthur Mervyn himself develops romantic feelings for three women in succession: Clemenza, Eliza, and Mrs. Fielding. He fantasizes of marrying and regaining social power: 

I was raised to a level with her and made a tenant of the same mansion. Some intercourse would take place between us. Time would lay level impediments and establish familiarity, and this intercourse might foster love and terminate in- marriage! (Brown, 46)

 He ultimately values women that attain the adequate amount of sophistication and social status he considers necessary to fulfill the lifestyle he dreams of.

a gif from Blue Jasmine the movie

Could Brown simply be reflecting the social changes of the time, or offering a sort of critique towards this social phenomenon? Are these women depicted as true powers of figure or simply individuals symbolizing opportunities to climb the social ladder? What are the moral implications of such desires of Arthur Mervyn?

Last but not least, Arthur Mervyn sets out from his father’s house with the intention of making his own fortune and living on his own terms. He’s an unencumbered young man who is physically able, and at first he “trod this unwonted path with all the fearlessness of youth” (Brown 20). But since Arthur has very little money and quickly loses his small bundle of belongings, he lives largely on advantageous coincidences and the mercy of others. Often this mercy springs from the best intentions, such as the doctor’s offer of shelter despite Arthur’s dangerous yellow fever. But Arthur also meets Welbeck, whose mercy is a guise for manipulation and greed. When Arthur sets out from his family’s home, does he find freedom or simply a lifestyle dependent on societal goodwill? 

Philadelphia’s Homeless. 1986 Pulitzer Prize, Feature Photography, Tom Gralish, The Philadelphia Enquirer

We’ve come up with questions that are worthy of discussion–hopefully they will enrich tomorrow’s roundtable!

Happy reading,

Mina, Joohee, Annie