Life imitates art

Did China take a page out of a bestselling American author’s book?

The Eyes of Darkness, a 1981 thriller by bestselling suspense author Dean Koontz, tells of a Chinese military lab that creates a virus as part of its biological weapons programme. The lab is located in Wuhan, which lends the virus its name, Wuhan-400. A chilling literary coincidence or a case of writer as unwitting prophet?

In The Eyes of Darkness, a grieving mother, Christina Evans, sets out to discover whether her son Danny died on a camping trip or if – as suspicious messages suggest – he is still alive. She eventually tracks him down to a military facility where he is being held after being accidentally contaminated with man-made microorganisms created at the research centre in Wuhan.

If that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, read this passage from the book: “It was around that time that a Chinese scientist named Li Chen moved to the United States while carrying a floppy disk of data from China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon of the past decade. They call it Wuhan-400 because it was developed in their RDNA laboratory just outside the city of Wuhan.”

In another strange coincidence, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses China’s only level four biosafety laboratory, the highest-level classification of labs that study the deadliest viruses, is just 32km from the epicentre of the current coronavirus outbreak
. The opening of the maximum-security lab was covered in a 2017 story in the journal Nature, which warned of safety risks in a culture where hierarchy trumps an open culture.

There’s a twist, though:

However, Wuhan wasn’t even originally mentioned in The Eyes of Darkness. The first edition of the book, written under Koontz’s pseudonym Leigh Nichols, concerns a virus called Gorki-400 that was created by the Russians and emerged from “the city of Gorki”.

The change to Wuhan came when the book was released in hardback under Koontz’s own name in 1989. The year of the book’s re-release is significant – 1989 marked the end of the Cold War. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was no longer communist.

Very old stories

This is intriguing:

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old, respectively. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are using simple historical data. Since the tales were passed down orally, they can be almost impossible to unwind using a historian or anthropologist’s traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture. […]

As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots—Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages more than 5,000 years ago and a tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.

If true, this would mean that elements of present-day Western culture date back to before the Epic of Gilgamesh and before the first (legendary) dynasty of China. From the study:

Wilhelm Grimm argued that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob had compiled were remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia…

In case you were wondering:

The Smith and the Devil is a European fairy tale. The story is of a smith who makes a pact with a malevolent being—commonly the Devil (in later times), Death or a genie—selling his soul for some power, then tricks the devil out of his prize. In one version, the smith gains the power to weld any material, he then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain.

(Sound familiar?)