Deadly new illness sells, so why not stick with a story that rings true?
- Tor Books (2005)
If I were in Dr. Daniel Kalla's emergency room at St. Paul's Hospital, I would put myself in his hands without a qualm. But I would also urge him to get a good editor…maybe Karl Taro Greenfeld.
Kalla is the author of two medical thrillers, last year's Pandemic and the just-released Resistance. A third is on the way in October. The first two are terrible, but I don't blame the author. I blame his editors and marketers.
Pandemic is about the spread of a disease resembling avian flu, accelerated by suicidal Islamic terrorists who deliberately infect themselves. Resistance is about an antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria that rages through hospitals from Vancouver to Los Angeles, accelerated by a professional killer who feeds it to drug addicts.
In Pandemic, a pandemic wasn't a good enough plot device for Kalla -- he had to drag in bioterrorism, and make Islamist fundamentalists the real villains of the piece. In Resistance, the threat of drug-resistant bacteria isn't good enough either; the real menace is Big Pharma companies led by handsome but amoral Frenchmen. The subtext: bogeymen sell. Real threats don't.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, writing one bad novel may be regarded as a misfortune; writing two bad novels looks like carelessness. Not Kalla's, but his editors.' As a grizzled veteran of mass-market genre fiction, I look back with respect on the editors who helped me learn the craft. They argued about my plots, questioned my characters' motives, and ruthlessly excised chunks of needless exposition. One told me about a top-selling author whose manuscripts were so illiterate they required painstaking cleanup -- which they got.
Not here. Resistance could have been a suspenseful, thoughtful thriller about doctors fighting a serious man-made threat, bacteria that have evolved resistance to antibiotics. Instead it's about a French villain and an unlikely hit man.
The motives of heroes and villains alike are almost beside the point, since the characters are highly implausible. Their dialogue sounds more like letters to the editor than the way people speak. Kalla even admits how pedantic they are when they try to explain the problem to one another (but really to us).
Kalla can plot, all right, once he's established his silly premises. If anything, Resistance is over-plotted, with a climactic revelation straight out of an old Charlie Chan movie -- complete with the newly exposed villain holding a knife to the heroine's lovely throat.
Because his editors let him down, Kalla sabotages his own story. He promises to be worth reading because he's a medical expert dramatizing a medical problem, yet he trivializes that problem.
When fact surpasses fiction
By contrast, a recent non-fiction book is an example of how the techniques of fiction can make fact both entertaining and enlightening. China Syndrome, by Karl Taro Greenfeld, is a history of the SARS outbreak with more scares per page than Michael Crichton ever dreamed of.
Greenfeld was the editor of Time Asia in Hong Kong when rumours of something bad began to filter out of China in late 2002. At first he dismissed them as not worth a story. But before long he realized the Chinese government was silent while its people frantically swapped news via cell phone and instant messaging.
With skill most novelists can only wish for, Greenfeld weaves a multi-strand plot: economic émigrés trying to make a buck in Shenzhen's anarchic capitalism, brilliant doctors who survived the Cultural Revolution and office workers dying of SARS carried by leaky sewage pipes in their high-rise apartment buildings.
When I spoke with him the other day, Greenfeld said the fiction-style structure seemed like the natural way to tell the story. He also adopted a popular thriller technique: chapters that provide the date, the location and the numbers of cases and deaths to that point. Some characters received fictitious names to protect their privacy.
"I did a lot of getting into people's heads," he told me. But he did it by interviewing them first, asking what they'd been thinking at particular moments. It's a common magazine-writing technique that he adapted to the needs of the book.
Greenfeld's doctors and patients are fully realized and all too human. Liu Jianlun was the doctor who carried SARS from Guangdong to a Hong Kong hotel elevator; from there it went on to Hanoi and Toronto. Dr. Liu was a smart specialist with a talent for denial, or he would never have left Guangzhou for a conference in Hong Kong after examining SARS patients.
The frailties of medical authorities is a sub-theme of China Syndrome. A virologist with a huge ego takes huge risks to acquire samples from mainland patients, and then smuggle them into Hong Kong. Carlo Urbani, following SARS to Hanoi, takes awful chances to learn about the disease. He pays for his knowledge with his life.
Thriller as social drama
China Syndrome is a social drama as well as a medical thriller, and much of its impact stems from Greenfeld's vivid description of the squalor and greed of Shenzhen, the hunger of China's parvenu millionaires for "Wild Flavour" -- meals made from the flesh of civets and pangolins and badgers. Having seen the old Qingping Market in Guangzhou, where you could buy barbecued rats and fresh haunch of dog, I understood what 20 more prosperous years had brought to southern China.
In Greenfeld's book, his characters are playing for high stakes and know what a loss will mean. We know too, and we turn the page even though we know SARS will not kill us all. And why not? Because Guan Yi forced China to stop selling civets in the wet markets of Guangzhou. That broke the chain of infection, at almost the precise moment when H5N1 returned.
But the ban was lifted to feed the market, and Guan Yi has since found SARS in a host of wild species. It's gone for now, and we've forgotten it. But SARS has not forgotten us.
How do you sell this stuff?
Marketing a book like Resistance is easy: slap on a cover with big, embossed letters and a corpse on a gurney. That's so supermarket customers will notice the book on the rack. Throw a plot summary on the back, along with snippets of praise from earlier reviews. Cite some amazing number of copies already in print. (Pandemic claimed 170,000.) Then put it on the racks and pray.
In mass-market genre fiction, rack sales mean nothing unless they lead to re-orders. The rack jobbers will have another batch of paperbacks in a couple of weeks. This week's thrillers and romances better sell out, or any remaining copies will be dumped, with the torn-off covers sent back to the publisher for credit against the next batch of titles.
So I don't put much trust in claims of copies printed; publishers print just as many as they think will sell, and only if re-orders come in will they cautiously print a few more. Otherwise they'd risk being stuck with warehouses full of unsaleable junk.
Karl Taro Greenfeld told me his U.S. publishers had some trouble finding a marketing angle for China Syndrome. They ended up promoting it as a medical history, like John M. Barry's The Great Influenza. But it's also a suspense thriller, an analysis of China's brutal new prosperity, and an inside look at how the mass media cover a story. The progress of SARS depended on cultural factors, so the book is actually a tragicomedy of manners. If it were fiction, it would be a brilliant satire.
Satire or not, Greenfeld says that when the paperback comes out next winter, the cover and the marketing campaign will promote the book as a thriller.
Perhaps some future satirist will write a book about the North American publishing industry. It could show good doctors writing bad fiction (like over-prescribing antibiotics and thereby making the bacteria resistant to them). Meanwhile journalists are using fiction techniques to make the real medicine go down.
Then the satirist will have to persuade some publisher that such a book might actually make a buck, if it's marketed right.