Archive for December, 2014


So. That was a very fitting conclusion to a very enjoyable class. It seemed as if Contagion touched on various themes we had discussed regarding other texts. While watching what I thought was an excellent movie (thanks in large part to the acting. What a cast!) I couldn’t help but wonder whether Soderbergh’s depiction of pandemic was accurate or not. Indeed it is a fair assumption to make that certain aspects of pandemic and the nature of viruses were exaggerated in order to create drama. This article looks into the degree of realism in Contagion. The procedures taken by officials and the questions left unanswered make the film, according to the article, slightly inaccurate. 

This article by NPR discusses the real-world case of Ebola in terms of the film. They make a good point by saying the grim reality of Ebola is nothing compared to the highly dramatised image we get of MEV-1, the seemingly indestructible virus which spreads like “wildfire”. Thus people might be inclined to regard Ebola as a disease similar to the one in Contagion. This is a dangerous comparison to make in a world where the threat of pandemic is ever-present.

Finally, a bit of trivia: Consultant Dr. Ian Lipkin – professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health – said the virus in the film is one he created based on some traits of the Nipah virus from Malaysia in the late 1990s which spread from pigs to farmers. (IMDB)

Hope everyone has a good winter break!


Cough. Cough. Sneeze. Sneeze. Die.

Well, that was a wild ride. And here comes the last zero G roll. I found the idea of R0, a.k.a. the basic reproduction number, absolutely fascinating. So here is a quick list of the R0 for the world’s most infamous viruses.

Disease Transmission R0
Measles Airborne 12–18
Pertussis a.k.a. whooping cough Airborne droplet 12–17
Smallpox Airborne droplet 5–7
Polio Fecal-oral route 5–7
Rubella Airborne droplet 5–7
Mumps Airborne droplet 4–7
HIV/AIDS Sexual contact 2–5
SARS Airborne droplet 2–5
(1918 pandemic strain)
Airborne droplet 2–3
(2014 Ebola outbreak)
Bodily fluids 1.5-2.5

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Let’s just say that we are lucky to live in an age where there is a vaccine for whooping cough.

Contagion actually made me think back to our discussions on HIV/AIDS. I think, regardless of how awful and devastating the virus depicted in the movie was, at least the incubation period was short. In a lot of ways HIV is a super virus, perhaps the most clever killing machine (yes, I just attributed agency to the virus) as of yet, due to the fact that its incubation period is enormous. What happens if we get a virus that is able to hide for decades? How do you fight against something that appears seemingly out of nowhere? All I can say is, I am very grateful I did not have to live through the ’80s. I wonder, is there such a thing as an “age of contagion”? What does it mean to live in a health-obsessed society like ours when there are hundreds of thousands of these killing machines?

I certainly don’t know the answers to these questions, but there is at least one thing I learned in the course of this semester. GET THOSE FILTHY HANDS AWAY FROM YOUR FACE!

Thanks for these awesome 14 weeks and I wish you a disease-free Christmas and a healthy New Year!



Ps.: Warner Bros. did the coolest advertising campaign ever for this movie. Check it out, I promise, you won’t regret it!

Contagion – Bacteria Billboard



Conclusion. Answers. More Questions.

Through the use of diction, the authors of Contagion Literature have managed to portray …

Just Kidding.

We started Contagion with King Oidipus. As baptism, we read the scene of Oidipus gauging his eyes out with talons which, it can be argued, foreshadowed the horrors we would go on to visualize in the succeeding books. For the plot of Oedipus, the plague served as a precursor, an agent that began the plot but disappeared from the book soon after, making it easy to forget to feature it in a plot summary written for the course Contagion. In the books read since then, some diseases have been more outspoken than others and all with their own consequences. Taking a look back, in what ways did disease affect class discussions even when it was not explicitly being talked about? For example, every time we examined rumors, weren’t we always looking at it with the connotation of its resemblance to disease in the way it spreads?

Among its firsts, Oedipus made us conscious about the role of rumors in an epidemic, featured the debate of fate vs free will into the contagion narrative and juxtaposed the land’s anatomy with human anatomy [“a woman’s barren labor pains” (Sophocles, 92)]. Since then, a notable time Oidipus was recalled was in drawing the comparison between son Oidipus and the son in Dream of Ding Village inheriting the judgment for the sins of their fathers.

Next, DoFoe. Although slightly tedious, DoFoe introduced important plague discourses such as death counts, quarantines, plague seen as a heaven sent judgment and large public gatherings in between an epidemic. Since, our class discussions have closely monitored the reactions of the characters (both sick and healthy) towards those around them, and the collective reaction against the plague. We have also seen numerous ways of responding depending on the manner people understood the plague. Mocking it (Pushkin), trying to infect others (Defoe) or just trying to help (Camus); each novel was less neater about the above categories. People’s mentality was affected, influence that proved, sometimes to be stronger than rationality. The reactions are both specific and universal (we often recognized very similar reactions between characters of different epidemics, time periods and geographical regions). What do we do with our current database of reactions of characters in various disease and epidemic scenarios?

As we progressed through the course and books began to be culled from more recent time periods, the need to reason out disease as God’s retribution was less present. Diseases have been represented as a mystery for people, forcing their imagination, their intelligence and maybe, most importantly, their beliefs. Unable to understand their own destiny, they tried to assign the force of plague to their divinity. With progress, the faith in gods seems to have been replaced by the faith in science. However, this debate was culled again in the fairly recent Nemesis. Is God a time period or more inherent that that to human nature?


Often times, the disease is not an isolated social entity in the book but is rather in conjunction with other social epidemics like the war or the Bhopal incident. Another book, Dream of Ding Village exposes the blood bank business and ensuing AIDs epidemic rampant in China. How is disease a social epidemic that cannot necessarily survive in isolation but requires the presence of other social epidemics in order to exist? Disease has also been exploited as an allegory for larger concepts. In Zone One, the zombie epidemic is used to explain the concept of the likeness of consumers to zombies. The “bug” in Black Hole makes tangible teenage alienation and angst. How does the social commentary in these books differ from the books that use disease in a more straightforward manner? What if sometimes yellow fever is just the yellow fever and zombification is just zomfbification? When do such allegories stop becoming relevant? Do such allegories in literary examination have a life span similar to wise words becoming clichés?

 There has also been a succession of rather interesting narrators. It was rather difficult to get a class consensus on whether or not to believe Arthur Mervyn and his misadventures with yellow fever.  Arthur Mervyn also slowly engulfed the narrative in a way similar to how disease takes hold of the body or of society. Since, we have had a dead narrator, Animal, a teenager. We have also had in total one female voice for the narrator which was in a book written by the only female writer (actually, two female narrators if you count Black Hole). Is it a more feminist concern or instead a concern about the minority of disease literature  or both?

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed … it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”(Virginia Woolf 1930)

So much to think about.



Most honest narrator: Animal [Animal’s people]

Least honest narrator: DoFoe [A journal of the Plague Year]

Best coping mechanism in an epidemic:  The group of storytellers in [The Decameron]

Worst coping mechanism in an epidemic: The priest [A feast during the plague]

Best Doctor: Dr. Stevens [Arthur Mervyn], Rieux [The Plague]

Most graphic: Black Hole

Ideal book for class discussion: Nemesis (might have been a different one for everybody)

Feel free to add your own categories.


Camilla, Silviu, Simrat, Sudikchya


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 🙂

Creative Scientific Memoir, Nonfictional Thriller Journalism

The Hot Zone presents itself as a scientific, non-fiction thriller. I felt this claim, along with multiple aspects of its prose/published format, were some of the major clashing points of our discussion on Monday. As augmenter, I hope to amplify this debate.

According to Wikipedia (“reliable source” haha),

“Fiction is the form of any work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not real, but rather, imaginary and theoretical—that is, invented by the author.”

“Non-fiction is a narrative, account, or other communicative work whose assertions and descriptions are believed by the author to be factual. These assertions and descriptions may or may not be accurate, and can give either a true or a false account of the subject in question; however, it is generally assumed that authors of such accounts believe them to be truthful at the time of their composition or, at least, pose them to their audience as historically or empirically true.”

The entire summary on non-fiction is sounds eerily similar to the “I try to see through people’s faces into their minds” claim made by Preston in the author’s note discussed during class. By definition, the non-fiction genre provides itself with much more wiggle room, crossing the boundaries between fact and imagination.

As mentioned during discussion, there are multiple instances of fictional literature that incorporate closely researched, accurate facts. The Hot Zone is roughly the opposite: a work based on non-fictional, actual events but obviously incorporating dramatic and sensationalist sentiments. Apparently, there is an emerging genre classified as “creative nonfiction”:

“Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft.”

According to “the godfather of creative fiction” Lee Gutkind, “The primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction”. Gutkind is the founder of Creative Fiction, the first magazine to publish solely works of its titular genre.

Do you think this is a legitimate genre? Or is it just another factually accurate way of writing fiction? Are there any requirements Preston should have fulfilled in order to make The Hot Zone more acceptable as “scientific nonfictional thriller”? What does that even mean?

I hope you find these questions interesting.

PS: Our best/worst dreams have come true: The Hot Zone is being developed into a TV series by Fox. 

Inuits zombified

In Zone One, Whitehead (repeatedly) provides social commentary on the subject of consumerism prevalent in New York, something that can now also be extrapolated for many other cities on the world map. In the book, he employed two kinds of zombies – the stragglers and the skels – to make tangible the effects of consumerism. Arguably, the stragglers embody passive acts of consumerism with their repetitive brain-dead movements. The skels, meanwhile, embody the fierce and contagious nature of the disease by their penchant for biting the unaffected. 

All in all, the mental consequences of consumerism seems to be materialized in the aforementioned trails and and physically distorted bodies of the skels and the stragglers. However I came across an example where consumerism has led to a more literal zombification. The Inuits of Alaska, Canada and Greenland have enjoyed perfect set of teeth with their diet of fish and sea mammals, land mammals and birds. However, when processed food was introduced to the community, many Inuits started experiencing tooth decay for the very first time.

In the various groups in the lower Kuskokwim seventy-two individuals who were living exclusively on native foods had in their 2,138 teeth only two teeth or 0.09 per cent that had ever been attacked by tooth decay. In this district eighty-one individuals were studied who had been living in part or in considerable part on modern foods, and of their 2, 254 teeth 394 or 13 per cent had been attacked by dental caries.

A full article about it can be reached here.

This literal manifestation of zombification through consumerism, doesn’t end there. Their bodies also became subject to the health concerns – of obesity and diabetes – that are generally specific to the consumer society.

When further discussing zombification as an appropriate (or for the rebels, inappropriate) metaphor for consumerism, we can extend our vision to the health effects experienced by humans as part of being a consumerism-ridden society.

As more and more people believe zombies are real, they try to find a real zombie contagion with any occasion. Thus, once the ebola appeared, it was normal to relate it to the possibility of being responsible for the emergence of zombies.

Here is an interesting article about some presumably zombie due to ebola.

Also, as the Haitian culture seems to be one of those who led to the creation of the modern version of zombie, in this article you can read a few stories about zombies in Haiti.

In the end, I add some reasons why a real zombie apocalypse could actually happen.

If fiction is not horrifying enough take a look at reality: ebola

The Hot Zone explores a world of the highly infectious diseases that fall under the classification of filoviruses. The three viruses that fall under this category are Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan, and Marburg. Being nonfiction, the book seeks to be informative and accurate. It begins with the story of Charles Monet, a Frenchman that worked in a sugar factory in Kenya. Through the character of Charles Monet, we are introduced to the disease, and the way it spreads, as seen on page 16

“A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth. All of the earth’s cities are connected by a web of airline routes. The web is a network. Once a virus hits the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day – Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, wherever planes fly. Charles Monet and the life form inside him had entered the net”

Throughout the book Preston compares the instances in Africa to the discoveries occurring in the America and Europe. He alternates between the stories of hospitals that become infected in regions such as Congo to the vials of blood serum that are sent off to the CDC in Atlanta. This allows us to see the disease in a broader sense, rather than a simply isolated issue taking place in one country. A large part of the book is devoted to exploring the origin of the disease. A few portions of the book look at the possibility that Ebola could be the cause of the end of humanity. How does Preston’s description of the contractibility of AIDS allow readers to perceive the disease? Does the notion that Ebola being an airborne disease evoke a sense of urgency in Preston’s descriptions of transmission?

The disease is spoken about in excruciatingly gruesome terms. We are made aware of the red and black substance excreted from the mouth, the skin peeling off the skin and genitals, the liquefaction of the liver and many other effects the disease causes. The way in which the disease is spoken about varies from explicit details written to horrify us to biological explanations of the disease as a strand of RNA possessing the strain of the virus. Alternating between scenes of people’s deaths as a result of blood splattering from their bodies to the zone 4 area in which Nancy worked in displays separate approaches to disease, allowing us to recognize the way regular people versus medical professionals view it. How do these distinct accounts allow us, as readers, to reflect on our own response to disease? Also, in various parts of the novel, the disease is described by military biohazard specialists as a metaphor for a plane.

Like in many other works we have already taken a look at, the disease is euphemized. Rather than being called its true name, it is referred to as “the epidemic” in French. This was seen in Black Hole when the STD was referred to as ‘the bug’. Similarly, to other novels, the disease is assigned its own agency in The Hot Zone. This can be seen on page 24.

 “Having destroyed its host, the hot agent is now coming out of every orifice, and is ‘trying’ to find a new host.” 

Not only does it act as an independent body, but also, it acts as a transformative disease. Once it infects people, they change into a new person.

“His personality is being wiped away by which the liveliness and details of character seem to vanish. He is becoming an automaton. Tiny spots in his brain stem are liquefying. The higher functions of consciousness are winking out first, leaving the deeper parts of the brain stem (the primitive rat brain, the lizard brain) still alive and functioning. It could be said that the who of Charles Monet has already died while the what of Charles Monet continues to live” 

The way the book is narrated is different from the previous works we have studied, for example there are constant references to the sources of information in order to maintain the work’s credibility. Preston often states who told him the information, and whether he interviewed the person, or he is simply speculating. The book sometimes asks questions, “Did Monet put his hand in the ooze?” (page 16) What effect do the questions have on the readers? Do the questions allow readers to engage in the story? Does the self-reflection of the book causes it to be more credible? 

On page 81, we are made to reflect on our relation with the disease and other creatures around us.

“They were two human primates carrying another primate. One was the master of the earth, or at least believed himself to be, and the other was a nimble dweller in trees, a cousin of the master of the earth. Both species, the human and the monkey, were in the presence of another life form, which was older and more powerful than either of them, and was a dweller in blood”.

How do we, as humans, place in the biological process of the world? Are we really the ‘masters of the earth’? Is Preston satirizing humanity?


Take care guys,

Azmyra, Maisie, Sharon and Laura

Zombie Apocalypse

It’s clear that society now a days is obsessed with the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. People actually plan and prepare for it. It’s immersed in our culture now and it’s curious to think why it came about.

This article has an interesting claim, saying that in fact “ zombies may be helping us cope with the aftermath of World War II.”

Then, we have 5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse Could Actually Happen, and its only hard not to remember Miami’s cannibal incident back in 2012.

Maybe people are actually starting to get ready for a zombie apocalypse. In the most recent display of consumerism, Black Friday, where masses of people fight almost to the death to acquire “cheaper” things, mostly all sales flopped except the gun sales. Read more on this here. 

The Evolution of Zombies in Literature

On Sunday we discussed the ideas of ‘zombies’ in the texts we have read and compared them to that in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. We arrived at the conclusion that in previous works, the notion of The Zombie – though never explicitly mentioned – alluded to the idea of an infected being wilfully infecting another. However, given that Whitehead’s novel is based primarily on the subject of zombies, this definition does not lend itself as simply to the storyline, considering that we encounter elements of the zombie on many different levels – from that of ‘skels’ and ‘stragglers’ to the idea of the pre-apocalyptic world being trapped in a perpetual zombie-like state. Considering how the definition/ the use of zombies change depending on the work and the time in which it was written, I think it is necessary to look at a timeline of the major representations of zombies in literature.

1.The Epic of Giglamesh (dating back to 1000BC): recounts the struggle between the hero, Giglamesh, and the Gods, as he embarks on journeys and that displease and angers them. In the 6th (of 12) tablet, there is the suggestion of a zombie when the Goddess Ishtar claims that she will attempt to raise the dead who in turn will outnumber and outlive the living by devouring them.

2. The Bible (!): There is reference to zombies in the Bible itself:

Ezekiel 37:10: So I prophesised as I had been told. Breath entered the bodies and they came to life and stood up. There were enough of them to form an army.”

Revelation 11:11: “After three and a half days, a life-giving breath came from God and entered them and they stood up; and all who them were terrified.”

3. The Revenant: A zombie figure established in the Middle Ages. These zombies would return from the dead in a skeletal human form, to avenge wrong that was done by them when they were living.

4. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818): Although not a zombie novel, it dwells upon the notion of a character that is a walking, murderous corpse, with his only distinction from the modern day zombie being his ability to think and speak as the living do.

5. H.P. Lovecroft’s Herbert West – Reanimator (1922): define what we now understand as a zombie. The novel recounts the life of a mad scientist named Herbert West who endeavours to reanimate corpses, creating violent and primal beings.

6. The ‘Romero Zombie’:  Godfather of the modern zombie George Romero (horror writer and director), defined the zombie that we know of today – walking, mindless, dead, decomposing figures with the intention to devour the living. Romero introduced the idea of the zombie apocalypse – that there was absolutely no escape from these predators. His production Dawn of the Dead is the first to elaborate upon the effects on the world after the apocalypse, where the living struggle to survive and the zombies (the un-dead) outnumber their prey.

7. Today: In literature today, much like Whitehead’s Zone One, the notion of zombies is used to allude to apocalyptic fear; the fear for the safety of the world; the fear that humans – once infected – have the ability to inflict this chaos, and harm each other. 

Zombies have also featured in movies for decades, and they have indeed evolved over time. This video demonstrates the evolution of zombies in film, which is similar to the evolution of zombies in literature works after the 20th century. The fact that zombie movies are still being made today (Warm Bodies and World War Z (2013)) shows that the appeal of zombies is very much alive (pun intended).