Dimitra Nikolaidou’s story “Any Old Disease” was published in Metaphorosis on Friday, 9 March 2018.
A woman on a mountaintop looking up at the bright, crisp stars. Melted ice, sweeping the world away. A post-apocalyptic game, where you rediscover Earth’s unbelievable past.
Stories come from the weirdest places.
For a story that deals with death, hope and our human lust for achieving ever more, “Any Old Disease” has decidedly pulp origins. I have never seen 2012, the disaster movie directed by Roland Emmerich, but one image in the trailer stuck to mind: a Tibetan monk, looking up to see a tidal wave dwarfing the Himalaya. A few years later we began playing Ivory Towers, a role-playing game where after a flood, the world has been beautifully rebuilt – by corporations. I played as a soldier who becomes increasingly curious about the lost world that came before him, the world he thinks he knew about.
Thinking of the past as a well-documented time with just a few mysteries sprinkled in-between to keep things spicy, is a common mistake. David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries illustrates that best: in 4022 a motel is excavated and future archaeologists are excited, interpreting every single thing they find, from a toothbrush to a bathplug, as an important artifact. The picture of the lead archaeologist with a toilet seat on his head, purposely resembling Sophia Schliemann bedecked in Troy’s gold, is meant to be humorous but to me, it was a revelation: we can never know what came before and everything we think we know, is covered in our own assumptions. My love of history had suddenly turned from a diligent pursuit of knowledge to a romantic quest.
Not that that I consider this a bad thing.
With these ideas in mind, I began to write a horror story about a mysterious disease, a sinister Director and the stalwart doctor who sets out to discover the truth. Soon though, it mutated into something else.
It might have been the face of my Godfather, a surgeon who has not rested a day since he began work and won’t rest as long as someone needs him. Maybe it was the article I wrote on the pursuit of immortality from China’s courts to the USSR and up to the transhumanist movement. Or my growing fear of an environmental catastrophe, sweeping us away.
It might also have been that, amidst a deluge of bad news from all over the world, humans keeps insisting on a better future – no matter how badly we mess up our eternal pursuit. After all, I was taught at school that our Greek word for human –anthropos– literally means looking upwards.
Of course, as I was writing, none of this entered my mind. I was just following Dr Ada as she unraveled the secrets of her Institute one by one, as familiar faces changed into something unknown and signs of wrongness kept unsettling her, nudging her to find the truth. In a way, it is a gothic tale, a heroine trapped in a mountaintop estate racing to discover its long buried secret before they drive her to an awful fate. While my plot pays homage to its pulp roots, other elements had crept in and made the story mine – as is always the case when you write. And every time someone asks a question about the worldbuilding or the characters, I uncover a new inspiration which I had not even considered in the course of writing.
I can only be grateful so many others have liked it in the meantime.
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