Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Empire of Fear

Brian Stableford portrays vampirism as a contagious disease in THE EMPIRE OF FEAR (1988). A version of the first section was published in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION under the title "The Man Who Loved the Vampire Lady." An epic work of alternate history, EMPIRE OF FEAR takes place mainly in seventeenth-century Europe and Africa, as the Renaissance inaugurates the beginnings of modern science. The main but not exclusive viewpoint character for most of the story, Noell Cordery, devotes his career to researching the biological origin of vampirism. Interludes in the form of inserted letters from various characters provide other perspectives. Historical figures such as Vlad Tepes appear.

In the world of this novel, vampires have long since consolidated their hegemony, despite the fear and hostility directed at them from some quarters. An aristocratic caste, they dominate ordinary mortals, a difference in status highlighted by references to non-vampires as "common men." Ultimately vampirism is revealed as an infection that alters the human genetic code. The virus originally came to Earth on a meteorite that landed in the depths of Africa, so that the transformed elite are almost literally aliens. Since only the semen of an infected male can effect transformation, all male vampires are engendered through homosexual intercourse. A global pandemic spreading out of Africa via sexual contact inevitably evokes the real-world AIDS epidemic. The vampiric infection, however, is benign rather than harmful; it changes its hosts into superior beings. The political, religious, and social consequences of their dominance are meticulously explored and portrayed in rich detail. After superstitions about vampirism are replaced with scientific facts, immortality becomes available to all except the minority who are immune to the virus. Freed by synthetic nourishment from the need to drink live blood, the transformed population embraces a new world order.

The novel's final section leaps ahead to 1983, when this transformation has spread worldwide. The protagonist, Michael, is a mortal man barred from the immortal privilege of the majority. Unlike Neville at the end of Richard Matheson's pioneering vampirism-as-disease work, I AM LEGEND (1954), however, Stableford's Michael is not a feared and loathed outcast, but the cherished lover of a vampire woman. Stableford's story, therefore, concludes with reconciliation rather than alienation, although in a melancholy tone.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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