Aimlessly Going Forward

blog by Tomas Sedovic

Skeptics in the Pub: Cholera by Mark Crislip

book, review

3/5 stars

I’ve been meaning to pick up one of Mark Crislip’s books for ages. As a regular reader of Science Based Medicine, his writing is informative as well as hilarious. An infection disease doctor with decades of practice and a sharp tongue — what’s not to like.

So imagine my surprise when he started posting a bona fide work of fiction (within the medical field, but still) to SBM. That’s not the book I expected to read, but here we go.

Skeptics in the Pub is set in more or less modern (2017) North America with a twist: the revolutionaries failed and America remains a British colony.

Consequently, the Continent (Europe) and anything coming out of it is at best looked upon with distaste and a lot of the new philosophies, medical discoveries etc. are viewed as heresies. And you don’t want have the Crown’s attention for studying texts on some invisible animacules which supposedly cause disease.

Plus, it would undermine the fine balance that the officially recognised Medical Guilds (the homeopaths, acupuncturists, naturopaths) maintain.

And then the cholera hits. And despite projecting confidence, the Guilds are not really stopping the outbreak. Quarantines help only a little, there’s no cure and of course, each Philosophy has a different explanation for the cause of the disease. Can they all be right?

It is a great setup and it’s really easy to read. I knew very little about cholera and watching the protagonist try to use scientific inquiry to map and investigate the spread, form hypotheses and eventually stop it at the source and provide a cure against the background of quacks fleecing everyone was both informative and satisfying.

The book is apparently inspired by past outbreaks up to removing a water pump’s handle.

I’ve had fun and learned a lot.

And yet: it was an extremely heavy-handed depiction of "alternative medicine" (which to be sure is an extremely dangerous grifty utter scum that we can’t get rid of soon enough) but other than evoking schadenfreude for the people who know about the altmed’s (lack of) efficacy and the damage they cause, the strawman on-the-nose representation won’t likely sway even people on the fence, much less the true believers.

The plot is almost completely straightforward as well and while that can be a good thing, something felt missing here. Despite the risk that going against these powerful people as well as the Crown itself, the protagonist had an easy time and secret benefactors who always nudged them in the right direction.

There was no real danger, not plot twist, no setback. As I was gearing towards the end, I kept thinking: "is this it?". And yep, it was.

Which isn’t bad necessarily and I did enjoy the book, but it did feel like it was missing something.

This review was originally posted at Goodreads.

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