ZA Virus: The Beginning

This is a further elaboration from the taster previously published here.  More will come, as I get time.  As I am inspired.  As my imagination becomes more lurid B-)


The little bat fluttered awkwardly down into the dim alley, its fragile forearm broken by impact with the newly-placed clothesline, high above.  Not that anyone would ever know, but it was a Geoffroy’s horseshoe bat, and it was so close to its roost in the disused storeroom ceiling just a little way down the road that it could smell it – but it would never get there.

It was a tiny thing, just 25 grams of reddish-yellow fur and dark wings spanning just 30 cm, with its stomach half-full of the moths it had been hunting so assiduously beneath the streetlight at the mouth of the alley.  Bat lovers knew it as a public servant, and would know that piles of wings and carapaces under a temporary roost were a good marker of its presence – and there were thousands of them in Cape Town, more in the countryside, and they were completely harmless to humans and animals.

The bat landed roughly, scattering some of the lighter debris carpeting the alley.  It flopped ineffectually, trying to get airborne enough to roost in safety, but all it did was disturb the papers and plastic bottles some more.  Enough to attract the attention of an even more common city inhabitant: a brown rat; Rattus norvegicus, the legendary ship’s rat that had colonised the world, courtesy of seaborne traffic since the dawn of sailing craft, and had been breeding in Cape Town sewers and gutters for three hundred years.

It was big and well-fed specimen; 350 grams and 45 cm from nose to tail tip, darkish brown with a lighter belly.  Like many of its Cape Town brethren, it was bold and adventurous – and aggressive.  It and its kind had not met bats often before; aside from cleaning up dead remains fallen from roosts, the little fliers were generally too agile and too elusive to ever be caught live.

The rat cautiously explored the area near the now suddenly-immobile and sound-alarmed bat – which did its best to feign death, until the rat’s whiskers touched its flight sensory fur on one wing.  Then it exploded into a flurry of movement, frightening the rat off to a meter or so away.  There it sat, watching the bat flutter helplessly in circles on the ground, until it tired and was still again.  So the dance of death began, with the rat venturing up, the bat frantically fluttering, the rat withdrawing – but less each time, until a quick dart had him at the bat’s shoulder, and sharp teeth clamped down to rip the thin wing.

Even though the bat’s wing covered the rat like a blanket, it was so outweighed that its struggles were futile, and quickly over.  Even so, its tiny but sharp teeth caught the rat’s face, and their blood mixed in the rat’s fur as he finished the game.  All that remained was to drag the little body away, to the hole in the crumbled masonry of the alley wall that led into the storeroom of the old antique shop next door, to feed the family.

* * *

It is interesting that it is in the unlikely intersections of unlike partners, that new virus diseases often originate.  Humans, pigs and fruit bats in Malaysia for a virus called Nipah; humans, horses and fruit bats in Australia for a related virus called Hendra; humans and rodents in West Africa for Lassa virus; humans and deer mice in New Mexico for Sin Nombre virus – and humans and bats for the various types of Ebola.  Then there are the various influenza A viruses, which jump from birds into animals and often people too – sometimes with devastating effects, such as the Spanish Flu pandemic that probably killed over 50 million people.

All of them serious killers of people; all of them viruses that infect rodents or bats or birds without causing symptoms; all of them a result of population pressures forcing animals and people together.

Then there are the much rarer incidences of genuinely new disease agents arising from accidental mixing of different viruses: very occasionally, two viruses that infect the same host can mix in unexpected ways, to produce something viable.

And a mix that came from the unlikely combination of freshly-eaten moth remains, the still-bleeding meat of an insect-eating bat, and the inside of a rat, was about to be tested.

To Be Continued.

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Baby steps in a spacesuit 4: in praise of Analog

Worlds Without End retweeted a post from author Robert Sawyer the other day, congratulating Analog magazine on its 1000th issue.

Seriously: 1000 issues of a classic SF monthly magazine, still going in a time where print is pauper and digital is king!

I started reading Analog – which went through several name changes over the years – in around 1969, as tatty second-hand copies sourced from my favourite paperback swap shop in the Lusaka Central Arcade.  It was easily the best of the magazines I had sampled – which included Amazing Stories, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – and I actually built up quite a collection, pretty much as consecutive issues, and was introduced to a multitude of amazing authors.  I remember reading Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Ben Bova, Asimov – and many others, some of whose stories are still vividly with me, even though I have completely forgotten who wrote them.

Like the large red-haired men in kilts and feathers, who counted coup…I still haven’t found who wrote those ones.

I even corresponded with the editor, in 1978 or so: I wrote to Ben Bova, commenting negatively on the politics of John Campbell and his editorial disdain for Africa, and was unexpectedly answered by Stanley Schmidt, who had just taken over – who had actually been to Africa, and who was far more sympathetic.

So congratulations, Analog – and I hope you have many more issues!  I must start reading you again….

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Science meets Science Fiction: Human head transplants

New Scientist magazine, which I have been enjoying since 1971, has a piece called “Welcome to the body shop” in its 28 February issue – on transplanting human heads – which has already had high-level media interest.  One Sergio Canavero from Turin has proposed that this could be feasible as early as 2017 – and indeed it may; however, the impression is that ethical issues could mire the whole issue in such red tape that it will not happen in our lifetimes.

Amazon ad for I Will Fear No Evil

Amazon ad for I Will Fear No Evil

But it has already happened, for us SF aficionados: back in 1970, no less a person than Robert A Heinlein published “I Will Fear No Evil“, about a brain transplant from an old tycoon into a young secretary’s body, which I picked up in paperback in sometime around 1974 (and which my dog ate in the 1990s).  This quite considerable tome – a lot longer than the average SF novel of the time – explored so many of the realistic and even completely far-fetched ethical issues (such as: the donor mind surviving with the new brain), that it should be prescribed as compulsory reading material for anyone who wants to do such a thing.

And would you believe, it is not mentioned once in the New Scientist article, nor in The Independent’s commentary?  What is it about SF that makes it unsuitable for mention in such an arena?  Or is it simply that no-one involved in the commentary has read enough SF to remember past lessons from masters like Heinlein?

Ah, well.  I have, and so probably have you, or you wouldn’t have found your way here.

To coin a pun, I am two minds right now as to whether or not I approve of such a thing B-)

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In Praise of Pratchett

About six years ago, I wrote a paean in praise of Terry Pratchett – because I have, for over 30 years, been enthralled by his prose.

And then yesterday, I heard that he had died.  No! I cried.  No!! again!!  For years now, it has been my ritual to give my son at Xmas the newest in the Diskworld series that Sir Terry so kindly provided – for years.  Then he started the Long Earth series, and I started buying those for myself – my son now being 22, and quite capable of buying his own.

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Now there will be no more – barring some tidying up of his estate, and tribute collections, and reissues.  I am devastated.

The good thing is, I still have ALL my books AND my son’s – which amounts to both a pre- and post-Diskworld collection, which should take me a couple of years to re-read.

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Terry, we will not forget you.  Thank you.   And seeing as I don’t think I could write it any better now, here’s my prescient offering from 2009.

“You know, [I have] long held the view that nine-tenths of literature – in terms of the requirements of Sturgeon’s Law – is crud.  The corollary to this is, of course, that nine-tenths of all literary criticism is crud, except that this is not true: it is more like 99%….  And of course, a further corollary is that nine-tenths of all literary critics are crud – except that this is also not true, as they are in fact all crud.

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And a glowing exception to the literature rule is the fiction of one Terry Pratchett.  Yes, despite his having single-handedly having invented a genre (science fantasy satire), and having written some 30+ books in said genre, it may be said that all his offerings are gems beyond compare.

[I speak] with the authority inherent in his having read all of said oeuvre over more than twenty years, [now over thirty] and nearly all of them more than once (many recently, in search of Escape), and having read his non-science fantasy satire books before he was famous.

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These are of course few in number – if two can said to be “few”, rather than just a couple.  However, I can safely claim to have read “Dark Side of the Sun” WAAAAY before TP achieved serious fame, and to have read “Good Omens” before Diskworld became the famous structure it is today.

To read his works is to submerge yourself in a world where the whimsical and the side-splittingly funny share a stage with the learned, the knowledgeable, the erudite and the sensitive, and yes, their cousin the sad.  For TP is nothing if not well informed, well educated, accurate – and an astonishingly good observer of human behaviour.  And also of the behaviour of dwarfs, trolls, vampires, werewolves, witches, policemen, wizards, and of Death Himself.  And his horse, Binky.  In a world which is a disk, borne on the back of four elephants standing on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin, who bears this load uncomplainingly across the universe, through billenia.  With the odd diversion down the wrong trouser leg of Time.

With humour.  And pathos.  And acute sensitivity.

 Catch me any pre-post-demi-modernist who could do any of that, and I’ll show you your derrida….

I’m off to re-read “Thud!”.  Wherein Commander of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, Samuel Vimes, battles ancient demons, dwarfs, trolls, vampires, himself and the Patriarch – and still finds time to read a bedtime story to his son.  Every night.  I can identify with that….”

Wander well, Terry, in the playgrounds of our minds.

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The Twelve Days of the SF Holiday

I thought the Xmas / Saturnalia / Whatever festival could do with some new songs, so here’s mine. It also doubles as a great suggestion list for feeding budding SF fans, because every suggestion is a link to a real book B-)

On the first day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
The Foundation Trilogy!

On the second day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Two Hawks From Earth!

On the third day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Three Worlds to Conquer!

On the fourth day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Four Hundred Billion Stars!

On the fifth day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
The Five Gold Bands!

On the sixth day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
The Man With Six Senses!

On the seventh day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Seven American Nights!

On the eighth day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Eight Keys to Eden!

On the ninth day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Nine Princes in Amber!

On the tenth day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Tales of Ten Worlds!

On the eleventh day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
Wizard’s Eleven!

On the twelfth day of Holidays my true love gave to me –
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters!

Enjoy. And visit Worlds Without End; it is simply the best SF site I have ever found. Oh – and remember our brave little space probes, all alone out there!

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Enter the hipster zombie. Ironically.


Preview of the first chapter of “ZA Virus”

Hilton lurched out of the Long Street alley, into the golden light of a perfect Cape Town autumn evening.  The sun just down behind Signal Hill; hardly any wind, just a touch of chill to the air – a magic time, lifting the spirits of everyone around.

Except Hilton.  His understated plaid shirt was caked in blood and vomit, the buttons largely undone.  His burgundy chinos were ripped, his Green Cross sandals filthy and stained.  His eyes were so bloodshot it was hard to make out any white, his neat goatee had unidentifiable lumps in it.  All he could see was the light; all he could think of was to go towards it.

Behind him, the carcass of the dog and the still-twitching body of the vagrant were near-invisible in the alley, behind the wheelie bins.  The virus still in them was dying now, as their cells slowly switched themselves off.  Even if it had been sentient enough to care, that was no problem.

It had a new host now.



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Whatever, Jo’burg, whatever…B-)

Gus Silber shared on Twitter today an

“Amusingly seething anti-CT rant by fed-up Joburger”.

This is imaginatively entitled “Go F**k Yourself, Cape Town“, and consists largely of a defensive set of reactions by one Jade Mitchell against a series of straw men, such as claiming people from Cape Town say things like:

“It’s so dirty, and busy, and trafficky and unsafe.”

Which it is, of course.  Not to mention severely pot-holed, with no working traffic lights.  And with defences for the average suburban home that make American bases in Afghanistan look like kids’ playgrounds.

But this is by the bye.  For Ms Mitchell makes a series of statements about or from Jo’burg designed to diss Cape Town – which any respectable denizen of these parts cannot allow to go unchallenged.  So, seriatim:

1. Capetonians are cliquey

Well, yes??  Otherwise they’d have to talk to people they don’t know!  I mean, I’ve been here 40 years, and Capetonians still don’t speak to me.

Including, it seems, my own children – who were born here.  But that’s OK, because we just befriend Namibians, Zimbabweans, and the occasional Gautengi.

2. Your business comes from Johannesburg

Obviously: one does try to keep the commercial areas separate from the areas where one lives, after all.

3. Cape Town salaries are lower, Cape Town expenses are higher

Let’s phrase this another way: you need danger pay to live in Jo’burg, and there’s more to do here.  Like drinking good wine you didn’t have to buy in Checkers.

4. We pay for you

“We”?  You mean the 9+ million people in Greater Johannesburg?  I should HOPE you contribute more to the GDP – but just 10% more doesn’t cut it, if you have 3x more people than we do…you see, we educated people down here innie Kaap!

5. Cape Town is not crime-free

Granted: it’s been the murder capital of SA for about the last 300 years, after all.  And ANYONE who walks

“…around the CBD at three in the morning, drunk on expensive craft beer and dressed like the bass player from an Indie-funk band”

DESERVES a sound thrashing, let alone relief from too much ill-spent money*.

*Which doesn’t happen in Cape Town, of course.

6. The DA is not infallible

Sure!  But I refer you back to potholes.  And working traffic lights.

7. Most of you don’t live anywhere near the beach

True, true…but if by “don’t live anywhere near” you mean “not within a half-hour’s drive”, then NOT true. Whereas you lot need “6 hours in a Chevrolet”, to quote Jeremy whatsit, to get even close#.  And that’s to Durban – and who wants to go there??

Then, of course, we have the winelands: lots and lots of winelands. The Mountain.  And other mountains – real ones, not man-made ones full of cyanide.

#And we do NOT count the Randburg Waterfront as an actual Waterfront.

8. Cape Town doesn’t have a high speed train

Yes.  And?  We also don’t pay R200+ to go one stop away from the airport on one, either.  And the high-speed taxis that can take you to anywhere in Cape Town more than make up for it.

9. When the Zombie Apocalypse comes, you are going to be so fucked

Ah, now, this is where you are SERIOUSLY wrong.  Consider point 5, above: I would seriously doubt the viability of any zombie horde in Cape Town, for a few very simple reasons.  These being the Junky Funky Kids, the Hard Livings, the 26s – 28s, and all of their ilk: I would seriously doubt whether any zombie army could survive the predatory power of armed Cape Town gangs intent on relieving them of any and all personal ornamentation, sunglasses, designer jeans and shoes.

And once that had happened, of course, we in the quiet suburbs would be safe from zombie predation, given that it is nothing much worse than what we already experience on a daily basis. In fact, Gus and I are supposed to be writing a zombie novel set in Cape Town – yes, we are, Gus! – in which just such events will come to pass.  With the Cape Town hippies and hipsters so beloved of Ms Mitchell who become the zombies – due to an unfortunate series of events involving a bat, a rat, a stray dog and a hipster – being ruthlessly and efficiently cleaned out by Cape Town’s finest.  And by our finest, I do not mean the SAPS.

As for the comment that:

I’m just saying, if we wanted to, we could come down there in droves, throttle each of you with your any-weather scarves, impale you on your gluten-free, vegan lollipops and cut your hearts out of your artfully tattooed chests with a broken wine bottle before you could say, “Kif, bru.”

You think we in Cape Town like people like that??  Jade, we try to run them over ourselves – or at least I do.  Because, dear Jade, they’re not from around these parts: they’re immigrants; arty people from upcountry who try to adopt our city as their own.

And we know this, how?  Because they hang out in Long Street – which is where we send our children to learn the Art of the Hunt.

So, dear Jo’burg: whatever.  Mind over matter, Gautengis, mind over matter. As in – we don’t mind, and you don’t matter B-)

Two good reasons to be in Cape Town: The Mountain - and Kirstenbosch. Oh, and the good wife, of course.

Two good reasons to be in Cape Town: The Mountain – and Kirstenbosch.
Oh, and the good wife, of course.

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