“Blockbuster: The Future of Pathogens?”

(The estimated reading time for this is 4 minutes)

© 2015 by Lisa von Biela.  All Rights Reserved.


Lots of things scare me, some more than others. While this can be mighty inconvenient in daily life, it does give me plenty of writing ideas. See? There’s a silver lining in just about anything if you look hard enough.

Several of my biggest fears play starring roles in my BigPharma thriller, Blockbuster. For one thing, it scares the bejeepers out of me that some very nasty pathogenic bacteria have become resistant to our arsenal of antibiotics, and that more will likely follow. So, what if a bacteria got loose that was readily transmitted and extremely deadly—and was resistant to all available antibiotics? Well, that’s part of what happens in Blockbuster. The idea scares me so much that as I was writing the book, if I happened to feel a simple itch on my toe, for example, a part of me would begin to panic because of what happens in the novel. Can you imagine how frightening it would be if something like that started spreading, and no existing antibiotic could fight it? Talk about being fresh out of bullets.

Just so you know, I actually completed the manuscript about a year ago (as this article goes to press), so I wrote it long before the recent Ebola crisis. Though a virus, Ebola shares some characteristics with the bacterial disease(s) in Blockbuster, in that there is no particular cure, and that it is incredibly vicious and deadly. However, Ebola is far less communicable than the diseases in Blockbuster, and because it’s a virus, antibiotics aren’t helpful anyway (except perhaps as prevention for secondary bacterial infections). When I “created” the diseases in Blockbuster, I deliberately combined the pathology of MRSA (the flesh-eating bacteria) with the terrible internal ravages of Ebola (and some more grisly features for good measure). I find it hard to imagine a more terrifying communicable disease.

On another level, I’m scared of disease in general, of being ill and in a hospital, under treatment, and fearing for my life. I’m sure most people are. In Blockbuster, that fear is magnified by the strict quarantine procedures necessitated by the nature of the disease. What would it be like to be gravely ill and in a quarantine chamber—with no human contact whatsoever—just when you’re at your most vulnerable and frightened? Unfortunately, that very thing plays out in an Ebola outbreak. The disease itself is horrific enough, but to be denied even the slightest bit of human comfort is unimaginably heartbreaking—though necessary.

As some of my readers may know, I edited a weekly email newsletter for biotech attorneys, the BioBlurb, through much of my time in law school. I’d gather stories from the week centered on the legal and ethical issues of various biotech developments—and I’d insert my own snarky little comments that my readers really enjoyed. On one level, it was fun to do and I learned a lot about what was going on in the biotech world. On another level, it provided all manner of novel fodder to my twisted little brain. But alas, in law school, there was little time for anything but…law school. So all those ideas fermented in the back of my head. And now I get to reap the benefits of all that fermentation. Blockbuster didn’t stem from any one particular story, but from a sort of gestalt of the stories, together with a “what if” question about a particular form of corruption.

Another thing that shaped Blockbuster is an annoying bit of reality: it takes a long, long time to develop a new drug and bring it to market. There are early trials, false starts, human trials (if you even get that far), FDA approvals, and all the activities needed to actually produce and distribute the eventual drug. If I’d adhered to that reality in the book, readers would have passed out from boredom by page 4. I had to do something about this! So, I decided to set it 10 years in the future, and “create” a very lovely and enviable piece of lab equipment that fast-tracks the drug development process, and even eliminates the need for human trials—the fabulous Pathosym. Such equipment isn’t totally without a basis in reality, however. There are prototype testing devices “on a chip” for certain things. I just took the concept a whole lot further. And this is why writing fiction is so, well, empowering.

And because I’d set the story 10 years out, I couldn’t just slap a fancy piece of equipment in the lab and stop there. I needed to envision future versions of normal, everyday electronics that we take for granted. Most such items in the book are either on their way or are based in some part on reality. For example, wristwatch computers are becoming a reality, or at least early versions of them. I just imagined something more mature and put it in the book—the PortiComm. These things had to feel like fairly natural extensions of current devices that might be real 10 years out. They were meant more as part of the environment, the “set” as it were, rather than stars of the show, like the lab equipment.

Blockbuster was a fun book to write: lots of biotech, high-tech, skullduggery, greed, and things going horribly awry. I hope you enjoy it…and that you have lots of antibacterial scrub handy. You’re going to need it.

Thanks for reading!

—Lisa von Biela

© 2015 – 2016, DarkFuse & individual contributors. All rights reserved.

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Lisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, and still claims there is no application she cannot break in testing. She left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. One of her legal articles, a research piece published in the Food and Drug Law Journal, was cited in an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court. She currently serves on the editorial board of the American Bar Association’s quarterly publication, The SciTech Lawyer. After placing 37th in the Personal Essay category of the 1999 Writer’s Digest contest, Lisa began to write short, dark fiction. Her first novel, The Genesis Code was published by DarkFuse.


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