Reasons to be fearful
A Hong Kong scientist has written a novel that cuts chillingly close to the bone, as David Watkins explains
NOSEBLEED WAS TO be Jackie Chan's biggest movie to date. Instead, it never happened, because the fictional events in its screenplay became terrible reality on September 11, 2001. The story centred on a skyscraper window-washer, who in his work being hoisted up the World Trade Centre every day for a living, foils a terrorist plot to destroy the building.
Similarly, the script for zombie-fest horror movie 28 Days Later - in which a deadly virus escapes from the confines of a laboratory and devastates Britain - seemed eerily prescient when the film was released to mask-wearing Asians during the Sars outbreak in 2003.
Both story ideas resonated because they demonstrated that what was once dismissed as the wild imaginings of Hollywood was now a grim fixture in our lives. The havoc wreaked by meticulous new forms of terrorism or unknown, uncontained viruses was the stuff of horror movies. Yet, we live on alert waiting for something similar to happen again.
Both film projects showed that concern about terrorism and disease informs modern society. Put them together, and you get the sum of all modern-day fears: bio-terrorism.
'It's very easy to take a virus from a dead animal and ship it to a place where there's no protection against it,' says Dr Richard Collins on the eve of the launch of his debut novel, Under a Blood Red Sky, in which he argues that a biochemical jihad is inevitable. 'There's a lot of talk about 'dirty' bombs, made from stolen uranium from Russia, or cases of anthrax going missing. That sort of thing is very difficult to do - whereas spreading a crippling disease, such as foot and mouth, isn't.'
In visualising a devastating bio-terror attack in which foot and mouth disease is seeded in Oklahoma and devours the entire population of livestock in the midwest, Under a Blood Red Sky illustrates how easy it would be for terrorists to mount a campaign that could cripple an economy. Collins, a biochemist, is the scientific review director for the government's Health, Welfare and Food Bureau. His 39th birthday coincided with the launch of the book at the weekend.
'They always say, 'Write what you know',' he says. 'I was working with a biotech firm here at the time of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain. My parents would phone me frequently, telling me how the country was gradually closing down. It really is the most infectious animal virus there is. As part of my job at the time, we got the British government to categorise the exact extent of the damage. It was devastation.'
Foot and mouth disease - a virus targeting cloven-footed animals - is marked by ulcers in the mouth and around the hoofs. It's highly infectious. Animals get sore mouths and feet and are eventually unable to eat or walk. The speed and intensity of the 2001 outbreak in Britain - which led to the slaughter of six million animals - prompted Collins, who is British but has lived in Hong Kong for the past eight years, to wonder what would happen if the disease were used as a weapon of bio-terrorism.
'From my experience working in Florida for two years after university, I knew that cattle in the United States were not protected against foot and mouth disease. It's up to the department of agriculture to protect all the imported animals and check for diseases which, if they occur, are immediately eradicated by killing all the animals. Historically, that's how the US has controlled any potential mass outbreaks. They haven't had an outbreak since 1929.
'But the upshot is that they don't have their animals vaccinated, so there's no way of protecting them. So, that formed the nucleus of my terrorist idea. What if somebody was crazy enough to actually go and infect the entire nation's livestock? I wanted to highlight just how easy it is to do.'
The depth of scientific detail in the book certainly leaves the reader with a clear idea of how to inflict biochemical trauma. Collins says that this makes his point all the more responsible. 'As I was writing it, I was conscious of the fact that maybe there're things that I should leave out. But it's no different than murder mysteries on TV,' he says. 'Look at something like CSI. You couldn't be more specific.'
Although foot and mouth disease is well controlled by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department in Hong Kong, with compulsory vaccinations of animals, it's endemic in other parts of the world. The British outbreak highlighted just how infectious the disease is. The countryside was, in effect, sealed off to the public in a bid to halt the virus.
'Places such as India or Pakistan - they just can't get rid of it,' says Collins, who began to write the story during the Sars outbreak - at a time when his own work and advice about Sars was published in newspapers worldwide and included a self-testing kit that he helped put together.
He saw how the outbreak of a disease brought two epidemics - the virus itself, and the accompanying wave of panic.
'Knowledge is power, and being a virologist, I knew that simply washing your hands was the easiest, simplest and most effective thing you could have done at the time against Sars. The headlines and hysteria don't tell you that. My wife was saying, 'Can you take four months off and we can go and live with your parents in Britain?' Which to me sounded pretty crazy.'
So that puts Collins in a strange position. On one hand, there's the scientific urge to rationalise everything. On the other is the fiction author's compulsion to ramp up the drama. The challenge is to find a balance.
'You need to have a complete disregard for hysteria, find some kind of middle ground,' he says. 'It's easy for scientists to write plausible science fiction or just straight, general fiction. But it's very difficult for someone without that background to write plausibly about a virus outbreak or something like that.'
Hoping to emulate the likes of Isaac Asimov and Michael Crichton, Collins is aware that, although scientists can become great writers who sell by the bucket load, established writers can rarely grapple with science.
'Maybe it's [scientists'] ability to play on the fear of the unknown. Public knowledge about science is still very much deplorable. There's still a huge proportion of people who don't know what DNA actually stands for. Despite the fact that we're bombarded daily with the latest medical results and news, people's general understanding of the facts is still quite poor.'
Life in a city as hectic as Hong Kong, a demanding day job and having two young children at home with his mainland-born wife in Discovery Bay would give most people enough excuses to prevent them from knuckling down and achieving something as satisfactory as writing a novel. But Collins says writing is basically a simple issue of mathematics.
'It's all to do with logic. I popped in the bookshop one day and was looking at a book and I thought, 'So that's 300 pages, 38 lines per page, about 90,000 words in total.' I realised that if I could manage 1,000 words a day, in three months I could write a whole novel. This was about two years ago. Once you've started, once you've made the commitment to write the first page, you're almost letting yourself down if you don't follow through with it.'
The story follows the exploits of Paul Caine, a hot-shot biochemist and womaniser called in to help in a nationwide manhunt for bio-terrorists who have targeted the US cattle herd. He's the James Bond of biochemistry, you could say, and is pursued throughout by Chen Xiao Lin, described as 'a mysterious and sexy Chinese spy'.
'I'm vicariously living my life through Paul Caine,' says Collins. 'He's what I want my life to be like, I guess. It's definitely not what my life has been like.
'I guess part of me wants to be famous. Part of me wants to be well known. I'm never going to be a famous scientist - I acknowledged that a long time ago. I'm quite an average scientist, in fact. I need to keep pushing, to see what my abilities and limits are.'
There are about 100 copies available in Hong Kong, although Collins says that, because it's self-published, he makes a loss on each sale. Not that you can put a price on pride - he keeps a video clip on his mobile phone as evidence of his success, showing his novel nestling next to Clive Cussler's in the bookshop.
'I've treated this project as a present to myself, because my grandfather recently died. He had a huge pile of money and never did anything with it. Never went anywhere, never did anything, didn't have too many friends. My dad was looking after the estate when he died, and distributed the legacy. He said to me, 'For god's sake, whatever you do, don't end up like my dad. Here's your share of the legacy, go and do something interesting with it.'
'I got #5,000 [$73,880] - and I decided that was going to be the limit to what I was going to spend. Unfortunately, during the editing process my own father then died, and so I dedicated it to him on the front page.'
Collins hopes people will treat the book as a good old-fashioned pot-boiler thriller. 'I was reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code at the time and I learnt the value of the short ungrammatical sentence. Before that I tended to be very long-winded,' he says. 'So, I hope that this, too, might become something people can read on the plane and think, 'Bloody hell - that was good'.'
Under a Blood Red Sky is available now at Dymocks, $150. For details, go to