Tag Archives: malaria

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

It’s the 1860s. The East India Company is facing an epidemic of malaria in India. They recruit their former smuggler, Merrick Tremayne, to go to Peru to try to get some cuttings of cinchona trees, from which quinine, one of the only medicines effective against malaria, is derived. To protect their economy and monopoly on quinine, local Peruvian bosses pretty much shoot anyone who tries to take these cuttings. So, Merrick has a daunting task ahead of him, never mind the bum leg he got during a shelling on a previous mission to China.

It turns out the Merrick has a long, if to him unknown, history with New Bethlehem, or Bedlam as it is called, a town near the cinchona forests. Better said, his father and grandfather had a history with Bedlam. As Merrick makes his way to Bedlam, accompanied by Clem Markham, an archeologist, and his wife Minna, he learns a lot about not only Bedlam and its strange inhabitants but also his own connection to the place.

He meets Raphael, a priest, who has a mysterious connection with his grandfather. Raphael is prone to sometimes long bouts of catalepsy, in which he enters essentially a catatonic state. What this means for Merrick and his mission, Merrick must find out.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley is an interesting story. The plot is pretty straight forward — Merrick and Clem must get to Bedlam and get some cuttings of cinchona trees and get them back to India — however, the real wonder comes from the world that Pulley creates. The people of Bedlam have ancient connections to the Inca that once lived there. These connections still inform their lives, particularly Raphael’s. An enigmatic character, we learn the truth about his connections to the Inca as the plot moves along. Pulley has created an interesting world in which the mysterious coexists with the modern, a place where the unknown can still fascinate science-minded characters such as Merrick. Sometimes, Clem and Merrick’s scientific bent blinds them to the reality that is right in front of them. Merrick, in narrating his adventure, describes his skepticism: “More things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy — except there aren’t.”

Some of my other favorite quotes from the book include:

  • Getting annoyed about it was like blaming a butterfly for not being able to spin a web.
  • It would be like burning rupees if you never intended to go to India again and didn’t know anyone else who would.
  • Clem thought that marriage was something that happened naturally to a person, like starting to like olives.
  • In his observations of the people of Bedlam, Merrick says: There must have been minds just like Sing’s [his employer], people who could have been flint-hearted trader millionaires, but would never make a difference to anything because they were too occupied weaving the idiotic read boats.
  • It’s hard to trust a man in his thirties who still loses his temper.

Mosquito Doctors and Warriors

There was a story on NPR last week (see this link) about how a scientist at the University of Maryland, Raymond St. Leger, has found a way to essentially infect mosquitos with a fungus that kills the malaria parasite within the mosquitos without killing the mosquito itself (at least not very quickly).  This last point is important, as, since the death is slow, the mosquito won’t adapt to the fungus so quickly, evolving to fight it.  By infecting the mosquitos thus, the malaria parasite is killed and the mosquitos don’t fight back.

It got me thinking (as I’m sure it has people who work for the government) that maybe using this kind of technology, one could do other things with mosquitos.  Two things jump to mind…

First, the good: why not infect the mosquito with a fungus that, instead of or in addition to killing the malaria parasite, also injects it with some kind of medicine, maybe a vaccine to say measles or antibiotics to help against maybe a cholera outbreak that occurs during some natural disaster.  The mosquitos would be released into the population, acting as mini flying syringes, and inoculate or administer drugs to the populace.  Large portions of the populace could be treated easily and quickly, without the need for doctors to visit each individual person.  And the mosquitos could likely access more remote areas that would be hard for doctors to reach. Of course, one could easily imagine abuses, which leads to second point…

If the mosquitos could be infected with a fungus that conveys some benefit, they could also be used in more nefarious ways.  They could transmit a disease itself, something that could be used to knock out a chunk of a population or army during wartime.  In the very least, if they transmitted the flu, it would weaken an army such that opposing forces might be more likely to be victorious in battle.  And, possibly, the disease would be so severe as to just directly kill the opponent.

As with most things, it isn’t the technology itself that is good or bad, but the uses of it.  It seems to me that “mosquito doctors” have a lot of potential beyond just eradicating malaria, but “mosquito warriors” could devastate not only the opposing army, but whole populations.