Trains, Interdimensional Planes, and the “Debate” Over Covid

Having previously posted (and published) about my interest in trains, earlier this month I got to enjoy dinner and drinks aboard the Essex Clipper Dinner Train, a steam-powered ride lapping the sunset miles. The dining car dates back to 1925, and plays appropriately Jazz Age jingles above the rhythmic percussion of the locomotive, pistons, and tracks. Plexiglass shielding separates my party from other tables, and the train operates at reduced capacity.

A train of a very different and non-human sort is featured in my latest story sale: “Reflections in Lizard-Time”. This alternate history will appear in the forthcoming Weird World War IV edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett, and containing stories by Jonathan Maberry, Nick Mamatas, Martin Shoemaker, Eric James Stone, Erica Satifka, and many other talented authors.

You read that right: World War FOUR. How the devil does one address that? My geopolitical Cold War thriller “Shadow Rook Red” appeared in Weird World War III, and despite the introduction of a speculative technology in the ’70s, largely takes place in a world we recognize as “modern”. The editor wanted to avoid an anthology chock full of wastelands, and so asked for tales that didn’t entail nuclear exchanges.

But a fourth world war??! And this time with no restrictions? I considered an array of options: apocalypse, cyberwarfare, an EMP-driven “setback war”, alien invasion, and interplanetary strife (which by definition would be a worlds war). Each option I dismissed, largely because I’ve seen them addressed before. Yet each option also made me consider how actual world wars have upended our conceptions of what was possible.

Certainly, warfare has been a continuous study of change. The Macedonian phalanx, Roman legion, and Mongolian horseman transformed how war was waged. The Chinese crossbow, English longbow, and firearms did the same. Yet these were usually incremental changes across the canvas of history. Alexander didn’t invent the phalanx, for instance, though he used it with supreme efficiency; his father Philip made it the terror of battlefields through the introduction of the sarissa spear. Even inventions like the corvus (a Roman boarding platform) didn’t instantly remake naval warfare, though it was a primary factor in the defeat of Carthage at sea. It took the Industrial Revolution to kick technological evolution into overdrive, so that one generation accustomed to one style of war was blindsided just a generation later: Great War casualties largely owed to commanding officers who failed to appreciate how the old ways of combat were obsolete (all the “gumption” in the world doesn’t negate German machine guns.) It was the Great War, too, that introduced airplanes, tanks, flamethrowers, and chemical warfare, so that generals who confidently predicted hostilities would be over within a few months were astounded to find themselves embroiled in a years-long slog of trenches, tunnels and terror.

World War II was every bit as transformative, and concluded with the detonation of atomic weaponry. This is why my World War III story “Shadow Rook Red” involved another radical upheaval of the battleground, in the form of interdimensional tactics.

And this brings us back to World War IV. My ultimate decision was to focus not just on technological upheavals, but on something more fundamental: our comprehension of humanity’s place in the universe. What do lizards have to do with it? Serendipitously, this aligns with my March blog post about dinosaur civilizations. The rest I leave to readers to enjoy when Weird World War IV hits bookstores.

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Upheavals of a different sort are the thesis of We Shall Rise, the latest installment of the New York Times bestselling Black Tide Rising series by John Ringo. This newest collection is now available everywhere books are sold. Set after a zombie apocalypse, the stories within address humanity’s attempts at rebuilding civilization. The zombie menace is fading into the background. Nations have collapsed, millions have died. Where do we go from here?

My contribution is “Descent into the Underworld”. Set in Umbria, Italy, the story involves a retired hitman living with his mother and daughter in a community trying to rebuild from the ashes of a global pandemic… and a sinister menace that will threaten everything he holds dear.

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And speaking of upheavals and global pandemics…

(deep sigh)

The online “debate” over whether COVID-19 escaped from a lab or resulted from natural spillover has predictably degenerated into belief-driven assertions and knee-jerk claims of certainty.

Let’s start with an incontrovertible fact: For the moment, we don’t know how the pandemic began.

Not knowing something is the starting point for scientific inquiry. It is certainly true that viruses can jump species (as has been documented with Ebola, HIV, and Zika), and also true that these investigations can take time (it took 15 years to determine the origin of SARS, for example, and decades for HIV).

Circumstantial evidence casts suspicion on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, in that the lab was established in Wuhan because there are viruses warranting study in Wuhan. That three WIV researchers reportedly got sick in November of 2019 is worthy of follow-up, but it’s also not a smoking gun. And while a lab leak is certainly not impossible, “not impossible” is hardly a compelling argument in itself. China’s timeless lack of transparency and bullying tactics hasn’t helped matters at all.

Hard evidence shows that coronaviruses of extremely similar genetic profiles to SARS-CoV-2 have been discovered in bats in at least four countries: Cambodia, China (specifically in a province 1,000 miles from Wuhan), Japan and Thailand, all of which comprise part of an extensive supply chain to the Huanan market. However, scientists have thus far been unable to zero in on an intermediary or reservoir host for SARS-CoV-2… the so-called missing link. This is troubling (given that tens of thousands of samples from hundreds of species from dozens of provinces have been tested) but we should keep in mind that locating an original host is a historically challenging feat… one made tougher by the sheer number of farms and suppliers connected with the Huanan market. Historical data strongly favors that bats or pangolins are the candidate vectors. It is easy to see how one infection could have slipped into the market or local human population (which then visited the market).

So what does all this mean?

Good science doesn’t rush to conclusions. It compiles evidence, examines that evidence, develops hypotheses, and seeks peer review. It runs tests and refines its models based on new evidence. Good science is the result of grindingly thorough methodology.

Know what doesn’t do all that? Social media. Emotional arguments. Agenda-driven politicians. Conspiracy theorists who rely on belief over facts. And a traditional media which loves sensationalism, like the recent UFO “scandal” (there remains no compelling evidence whatsoever that blurry dots on grainy film are in any way extraterrestrial spacecraft, no matter what 60 Minutes or Tucker Carlson want to imply).

Here are three things we can be certain about:

1: It is absolutely imperative that we conduct data-driven investigations into the origin of COVID-19 no matter where that investigation takes us.

2: It is absolutely imperative that we scrutinize the multiple paths viruses can take to get into human populations (including wet markets, food shipment supply lines, farming practices, deforestation, and laboratory safety protocols).

3: It is absolutely imperative that we create a truly global plan to enact when future pandemics rear their ugly heads. Because they will, and will likely be worse than COVID-19.

Anything else at this point is reactionary flailing and stubborn groupthink.

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