I chuckle ruefully at the sight of moviegoers flocking to the latest Predator or Alien or Korean horror movie, seeking to be frightened out of their wits by imaginary deadly and vicious beasties with convoluted lifecycles. If only they picked up The Fever, Sonia Shah’s engrossing and terrifying study of “how malaria has ruled humankind for 500,000 years,” the average person would soon be reduced to a pile of quivering, sentient jelly at the grim toll this incredibly bizarre parasite levies on our species. And perhaps, unlike the inconsequential result of viewing one of the aforementioned movies, the common citizen would be motivated out of their inertia to join a campaign to end this defeatable but shamefully ignored scourge.
Intimately embedded in her topic (the author opens the book by recalling her childhood brushes with malaria in India, and is soon reporting firsthand from such malarial hotzones as Malawi), Shah brings a balance of poetry and hard science to her reporting. Dividing her attention equally between disease agent (the various Plasmodium types) and disease carrier (the sundry mosquito species), she conveys the mechanics of infection, virulence and prevalence of the disease in crystal-clear fashion.
Her eye for weird incidents in the disease’s slow, persistent and ineluctable rampage down the millennia is exemplary, and we find some mind-boggling novelty on nearly every page. For instance, did you know that malaria is responsible for Scotland’s legal absorption into the British empire? Or that the ancient Romans regarded the liver from a “seven-year-old mouse” as a cure? Shah will delightfully confound and dazzle you with such tidbits in every chapter.
But Shah really shines when digging into the political and scientific ramifications attendant upon the struggle against malaria. Her analysis of how drug-resistant strains arose is some kind of soaring Darwinian opera. And when she paints the conflicts and confusions and wastage arising from the clash of Western concepts and approaches to eliminating the disease with the native worldviews and practices, she is boldly engagé.
Shah’s forecast for the future of humanity’s long battle against this eternal enemy is less than sanguine: “While we debate, and argue, and haphazardly collect our strength, the parasite refines its plague upon us. Unlike us, Plasmodium does not reenact failed strategies and weak defenses, its historical memory shot. The evolution of its predation is progressive, methodical, probing.”
But if our species ever does triumph over malaria, Shah’s book will assuredly be seen as a milestone in that long biological war.
-PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.