Today we welcome Greg Hickey, a former international professional baseball player and current forensic scientist, endurance athlete, and award-winning screenwriter and author. His debut novel Our Dried Voices was a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Science Fiction Book of the Year Award. The novel depicts a future colony where humans live without disease or hunger, where every want is satisfied automatically, and there is no need for labor, struggle or thought. Interested readers can start Our Dried Voices for free at Greg Hickey’s website. Greg lives in Chicago with his wife, Lindsay.
One random commenter wins a Kindle copy of Our Dried Voices.
What If There Were No Diseases?
It is easy to assume that a world with no diseases would offer great benefit to humankind. But a closer examination clouds the issue.
Every day, thousands of virologists, oncologists and microbiologists stoop over lab benches, test tubes and microscopes in the hopes of taking one small step toward easing the human suffering caused by disease. But what if they succeed? What comes after the day we wake up to a disease-free world, a day when all those brilliant scientists become obsolete? In my dystopian novel Our Dried Voices, I imagine a world without disease (and without hunger, poverty, labor, war and global warming). Yet this apparent utopia turns out to be anything but idyllic.
In short, the cost of human disease is not as one-sided as it may seem. However, I in no way mean to make light of the terrible suffering of those human beings who have faced the worst ravages of disease. Individual lives have value, and no human deserves to suffer and die. Yet instead of viewing human disease as a burden that warrants single-minded eradication, I want to recognize the tension between individual pain and potential collective benefit which lies at the heart of this issue. Simply put, I am not convinced that human history demonstrates the world would be better off without disease.
In October 1347, twelve merchant ships pulled into the Sicilian port of Messina. Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead. The rest suffered in the throes of a mysterious illness. Over the next five years, the so-called Black Death carried by those sailors would kill between twenty and twenty-five million people in Europe, nearly one-third of the continent’s total population. In the fourteenth century as a whole, close to 200 million people succumbed to this plague.
The Black Death was characterized by rapidly swelling black boils that could grow as large as an apple and oozed blood and pus. These boils were accompanied by fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, agonizing aches and, ultimately, death. The disease was extremely contagious and terribly lethal. Fourteenth-century observers noted that people could contract the disease merely by touching the clothes of a victim. People who appeared perfectly healthy one night could be dead by the next morning.
The Black Death caused terrible and widespread suffering. But its lethal effectiveness was also partly due to the destitute condition of Italy at the time. In the mid-fourteenth century, Italy was the most urbanized country in Europe. And the majority of its city residents lived in impoverished and unsanitary conditions, perfect grounds for the spread of disease. Moreover, the country had been struck by famine, and the population was weak and lacked natural resistance to the disease. From the port of Messina, the Black Death bolted across the famished countrysides. Then it blazed through the squalid cities of Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples, some of the most populous municipalities in Europe.
In short, life was hard for many mid-fourteenth century Italians, and the Black Death made it harder and briefer. Trade came to a standstill for fear of contagion. Violence against those harboring the disease became common. In the best cases, people shunned or ignored plague victims for fear of their own safety.
But as the plague waned, Italy and Europe found themselves in an entirely new socioeconomic landscape. The Black Death had devastated the labor force. In the epidemic’s aftermath, wages increased dramatically for both agricultural and urban workers. As a result, the plague virtually destroyed feudalism in northern Italy (though not in the south). With good farmland plentiful and wages on the rise, feudal serfs could finally afford to buy their freedom. The labor shortage also forced the development of labor-saving devices, which reduced overwork, injury and illness in the workforce.
Faced with the inexplicable devastation of the Black Death, people also began to question the orthodox view that the world and their place in it were fixed by God. They were no longer willing to accept the status quo as their allotment in life. Political revolts took place throughout Italy in the years following the plague. In Florence, poor workers and weavers took control of the city’s government from 1378 to 1382. No longer satisfied with stratified religious and political doctrine, people turned to reason to make sense of the world.
As a result of these new conditions, an unprecedented level of social mobility permeated Italy. Laborers had the freedom and income to turn themselves into merchants, merchants into nobility. People began to believe the social structure was not rigid and determined by birth, but fluid and subject to merit. This growing sense of individualism led more and more people to pursue new careers and develop their own talents.
These shifts toward reasoned understanding and individual development laid the foundation for the Italian Renaissance. The rising spirit of inquiry led to new efforts and theories in politics and philosophy. That same spirit, combined with individual ambition and creative drive, spurred Renaissance developments in art, architecture and writing. At the same time, rising prosperity led to an increase in disposable income among merchants and nobility. The Medici family provided one prominent example. The family established its fortune in the wool trade and then branched out into banking. Eventually, the Medicis used their growing wealth to promote such artists as Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo.
That is not to say the immense intellectual and artistic achievements of the Renaissance balance the incredible suffering and millions of fatalities caused by the Black Death. But without this plague, it seems unlikely the Renaissance as we know it would have happened at all, to say nothing of the present state of the world. Hundreds of millions of people suffered from the plague. It would be wrong to dismiss their pain and death as laying the groundwork for the advancement of the human race. Yet at the same time, this history suggests that humanity, as a whole, would not be better off without disease. A hypothetical example may further elucidate this tension.
A World Without Disease
Over one million Americans die of disease each year. Many more are diagnosed with potentially fatal illnesses. And these figures do not include the terrible emotional burden placed on their family, friends and caretakers.
For the sake of argument, let us imagine disease did not exist. More than one million more Americans might survive each year. Perhaps another million or more would not suffer the indignities and agonies of the myriad symptoms and aggressive treatments of illness.
Now perhaps some of those disease-absent survivors would have died of other causes. But perhaps some of them would have lived to procreate and produce new lives. Perhaps victims of non-fatal diseases would have done the same if not rendered infertile by an illness or its treatment. I surmise the additional lives created by increased procreation would at least balance, if not outweigh, deaths from causes other than disease.
So what effect would the existence of an additional one million Americans each year produce? To start, consider that the average American produces almost 20,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. Adding an additional one million Americans each year would be the carbon emissions equivalent of putting over four million more cars on the road.
Furthermore, there is a surplus of food in America (and in the world). Thus, hunger is not due to a scarcity of resources but to poverty. The same is true of homelessness, which results from poverty, unemployment and an inability to afford housing rather than a lack of housing itself. Thus, increasing population would not, in and of itself, contribute to increased hunger and homelessness nationwide.
As was the case in fourteenth-century Italy, contemporary research shows that disease strikes hardest against those living in poorer areas. So most of those suddenly reanimated one million Americans would probably be living in poverty had they not succumbed to disease. A decrease in such deaths would lead to increases in unemployment, homelessness and hunger, not necessarily because of a sudden shortage in jobs, homes or food, but because those who are most likely to die of disease are the same people who are most likely to be poor, jobless, homeless and hungry.
Again, I am not arguing that disease is some kind of benevolent euthanizer relieving the poor of their earthly sufferings. I am not trying to weigh the hardships of an impoverished existence against the suffering and death caused by horrible illness. Both are terrible outcomes I would not wish on anyone. However, the numbers suggest fewer deaths from diseases would equate to more global warming and a greater rate of poverty. Not to mention increased population, overcrowding and more competition for limited resources.
In contrast, what new discoveries would such a disease-free world inspire? With climate change accelerated by several years, with poverty on the rise, would a disease-free America (to say nothing of the rest of the world, which is generally poorer and more susceptible to the effects of climate change, poverty, hunger and the like) finally exceed a natural carrying capacity and see suffering and deaths of another form? Or would these new environmental and social pressures spark advancements in areas besides medicine, such as space exploration, climate manipulation, economy of food production and distribution, and social justice? It is worth noting that no major progress was made on a vaccine against the Ebola virus until after the recent mass outbreak in West Africa. Sadly, we humans often need the worst tragedies to spur us to our loftiest accomplishments.
Hardship and Heroism
In a world with no diseases and the terrible suffering they cause, we might find ourselves without the bursts of ingenuity inspired by our fervent desires to end this suffering. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. On an individual level, all humans abhor the suffering and death caused by disease. But on a global level, the fact that disease had cut down so many of our race has the uncomfortable consequence of allowing the rest of us to survive and thrive. Disease is an affliction and a practicality and a horrifying inspiration all at the same time. It provides us with something to strive against, and perhaps we need that kind of foil to fully realize our deepest human desires.
As children, we quickly become aware of the tension between the desire for comfort and the desire for greatness. All fairy tales glorify heroes, but only after the hero overcomes some immense hardship. Like those heroes, we must decide between embracing suffering and hoping to conquer it for a heroic cause or avoiding hardship for the sake of comfort. At the same time, we hope that we can have both, that we can escape suffering and still become heroes. Yet we all know deep down that we will experience pain at some point in our lives.
As you might imagine, the world of Our Dried Voices, a world without disease and strife, is not the blissful utopia it might seem. Without disease, my fictional humans face other painful consequences. And absent the hardship of illness, some human ingenuity finds no foil against which to develop itself, though other creative and inventive outbursts arise in the face of new challenges.
Do these side effects of disease mean we ought to embrace illness for weeding out the poorer, less fortunate and more susceptible members of our race? Certainly not. No human deserves to suffer greatly and die young, no matter what positives we might glean from such misfortune. Yet at the same time, it is foolhardy to dismiss disease as a great evil whose absence would make the world a far better place. Instead, disease remains a natural hardship and a challenge with which we must contend. In the end, this struggle between challenge and resourcefulness, suffering and exultation lies at the heart of the human condition. And the essence of the human condition and what it means to be human are major themes in Our Dried Voices. It seems we want more from life than comfort and ease. At the very least, I can say that we are born to suffer and we are born to overcome. Whether that allotment is fair remains a different question.
One random commenter wins a Kindle copy of Our Dried Voices. Here’s more about the book:
That reminds me; I read that there would be no significant impact on other species if mosquitoes went extinct.
intriguing and thoughtful examination of the complexities and how we tend to “short-cut” things when considering “what could be bad about that” scenarios
It sounds interesting.
You could make a similar case about war driving technical progress. But are those advancements we really need (especially in a world without war or disease)?
“It is worth noting that no major progress was made on a vaccine against the Ebola virus until after the recent mass outbreak in West Africa. Sadly, we humans often need the worst tragedies to spur us to our loftiest accomplishments.”
But without the virus, we wouldn’t need the vaccine.
Exactly! He may mean the dedication, innovation, ingenuity etc, but it feels like the cause-and-effect is not necessarily well thought out here.
Imagine what a society could be like if we we didn’t need war or disease to force our innovation and our curiosity.
This seems like a Very interesting food for thought hypothesis and novel.
I have thought about how if you went back in time and prevented the Black Death, the addition of that many people who didn’t live in the original timeline and all their descendants would greatly change the course of events. Not to mention all the people who wouldn’t be born, because it’s unlikely that everyone would get married in the same pattern as they originally did.
I don’t know, it kind of sounds like we should be eradicating capitalism and greed, which lead to poverty, unemployment and homelessness, doesn’t it?
But then we’ll just get another “ism” that involves the people in power using their power to keep those on the bottom down. What’s touted as capitalism now is trying to disown its own basis in labor and commodities and fly free into a realm of pure speculation based on money created from thin air. And some of the self-professed capitalists now seem like they would be perfectly happy with a new feudalism having themselves as lords.
I think Octavia Butler had it right in Parable of the Sower. It’s not greed that is the problem, it’s the inability of people (especially male people) to think of social relations as other than hierarchical. People accept hierarchies as “natural” and advantage those at the top, who immediately use that advantage to rig the system and aggrandize themselves even more at everyone else’s expense. That’s been going on since humans adopted agriculture, if not even earlier.
I think you’re on to something. I’d still like to see a few more social and economic experiments, though.
Alligators and crocodiles spend all of their time eating rotting carcasses, and they’ve thrived for millions of years. Maybe instead of a dystopian future of disease, mankind can look forward to a happy carcass-focused future revving up our immune systems!
“There’s always a silver lining for you, isn’t there?” :)
I recently skimmed an online article (did not read the entire thing) that postulated that many of our autoimmune disorders are springing from our immune system looking around for something to fight. Kind of like having a standing professional army with nothing to do, I guess. The article considered the reduction of some diseases as a factor.
BravoLimaPoppa, if you live in the USA, you win a Kindle copy of OUR DRIED VOICES!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!