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Recent news has been reminding me of various things I've read about the Black Death, including a story I believe I only saw once, and never stumbled across again. I encountered it over 30 years ago, so I remember nothing of such details as character names. (Nor even what city, in what country, it was set within.) I know it was a shorter piece of fiction, rather than a complete novel. I found it in an anthology I checked out from a library, probably no later than 1988. English language. I can't remember what else was in the anthology, nor what the overall theme may have been, but I'm sure it was not a collection of several stories by the same author.


Plot Points

  1. The main character, whose viewpoint is presented to us in the third person, lives in the Twentieth Century, but not our Twentieth Century. The history of Western Civilization veered off in a different direction some centuries earlier. (I can't remember just when the divergence was stated or implied to have occurred, but at least one language spoken by the protagonist is still comprehensible over here, on our side of the divide.) As we meet him, he is already an example of his world's version of a fully trained physician who is dedicated to his work. I think he is called "Doctor" as a result of his education at a reputable university. But he doesn't use the methods we normally expect of a modern doctor -- no immunization shots, no antibiotics, no X-rays or other imaging equipment, and I don't think he has ever touched a microscope in his life -- because all those things, and the theories behind them, don't seem to exist in his world.

  2. In the protagonist's culture, the preferred method of treating the sick is the sort of thing I would associate with "witch doctors." Elaborate magical rituals involving chants and dances and so forth, I think. In some cases, dealing with some types of ailments, these methods have delivered a comfortably high success rate. Which, presumably, is why these methods are now considered The Correct Way to Practice Medicine, and anything else is widely viewed (by physicians, anyway) as a complete waste of time!

  3. But our hero is a maverick. When the bubonic plague hits the city in which he resides, and hits it hard, he becomes convinced that it is caused by something which his magic spells are completely unable to cure -- and he doesn't think any of his professional colleagues in the area are doing much better. He wants to use some "experimental" and "alternative" methods which are radically different from the "proper" procedures he had diligently studied in school. I can't remember exactly what his methods were, but I know that my teenage self thought they at least resembled some of the measures which a real-world modern doctor might recommend if he were on the scene -- assuming the modern doctor lacked access to antibiotics and other modern tools of the trade, such as I mentioned in Point #1, but wanted to help as best he could, based on his knowledge of the germ theory of disease and other useful points.

  4. There is an argument in front of some sort of authority regarding whether the protagonist should be allowed to inflict such time-wasting and unproven techniques upon his trusting patients. (I think the authority in question was a committee which was either partially or entirely composed of senior medical men.) He gets a partial victory -- he is allowed to take responsibility for treating any plague victims residing in one sector on the city map. Public health statistics will be gathered from each sector, day by day over the next several weeks, to see if his methods appear to be making any difference at all.

  5. That decision sounds fair and reasonable -- except that, in practice, one or more of our hero's "competitors" (other doctors, using the time-honored methods of treatment within their assigned sectors) start cheating. Some weeks after that policy decision was made, the protagonist is told by one of his loyal assistants that a lot of dead bodies of plague victims are turning up just inside the boundaries of the hero's assigned sector, and it's pretty obvious that at least one other doctor is having fresh corpses loaded onto wagons and dumped along the fringes of that sector in the middle of the night so that their fatality rates look lower, and his look higher!

  6. The protagonist finally tries something completely new. This is another area where my memory fails. Somehow, he has gained access to a magic spell that could let him travel from his world to a parallel world where history followed a different path. I think he needs other people to help by chanting portions of the spell, making certain gestures or dance steps, etc., to make it work properly. He can't just cast it on himself. I don't remember where this spell came from, nor why it had rarely (if ever?) been used before. But the doctor puts it into effect and vanishes into thin air.

  7. At this point, the story stops showing us his viewpoint, and we start reading a formal report written by a professional medical man in what appears to be our world. The report tells us that a strangely-garbed man was found in the streets of their city (our world's equivalent of the setting of the previous scenes, I believe) and was quickly diagnosed as being feverish from a serious case of bubonic plague. He was taken to a hospital and pumped full of antibiotics. Physically, he made an excellent recovery! However, he kept saying nonsensical things about world history, about his own alleged medical training and preferred techniques, etc., which made no sense to anyone else, and so he was placed in the Psych Ward for a while. The plan was to figure out how deep his mental problems ran -- was he delusional as a regular thing, or just temporarily having trouble distinguishing between "reliable memories" and some elaborate hallucinations which he might have experienced while delirious with that fever, or what?

  8. The author of the report notes that after landing in the Psych Ward, this Mystery Patient became acquainted with the other mental patients and then started doing some "magic" nonsense, with ritual gestures and chants and so forth, which he loudly claimed could "cure" the afflictions with which they had been cursed. (I don't remember for sure, but he may have claimed he was "casting out demons" or something along those lines.) The report-writer assures his intended readers that while several of the mental patients do, in fact, appear to have been acting much more lucid and well-adjusted since then, it must be a coincidence. The painfully obvious implication (to us, knowing what we know) is that the protagonist does, in fact, know some "magical" techniques which somehow can make a huge difference in treating cases of paranoia, schizophrenia, etc. In other words, both worlds could benefit enormously by having the members of their respective medical communities compare notes and maintain an open mind about anything that seems "crazy" at first glance!

  9. Again, my memory fails: I can't remember how the story ends. Specifically, I don't know whether the protagonist finally managed to get hold of a stash of antibiotics, etc., which would allow him to make a huge difference in treating plague victims after he carried those modern assets back home via another use of the same spell. (Note: As I was about to post this, it suddenly occurred to me -- but I'm not sure if this is a genuine memory or a wild guess -- that the protagonist may have somehow persuaded several of his fellow mental patients to each perform one role within the coordinated team effort that is required to reverse the travel spell and send him right back to his native timeline with his new knowledge and medical supplies. Maybe.)


Does anyone else remember reading this?

I did a little Googling before I took the trouble to type out all of the above, as well as searching through previous questions on this very site. I kept coming up with references to various full-length SF novels that gave lots of attention to the historical Black Death, and/or alternate-timeline variations and their aftermaths, but these novels definitely are not related to the much shorter story I had in mind.

So the Reject Pile -- the list of things not to bother offering as "answers" -- includes all of the following:

  • The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

  • Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.

  • The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson.

  • The Crystal Empire, by L. Neil Smith.

  • In High Places, by Harry Turtledove.

  • Any of the novels and shorter stories that were ever published as part of Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" series. (Not all of them written by Garrett.) Those tales were set in a parallel universe where most technology is lagging a century or more behind ours, but medical treatment is largely a matter of using psychic healing techniques which frequently succeed. At one point, a sorcerer spoke disparagingly of the superstitious fools who think applying some moldy old bread to a fresh wound can somehow keep it from getting a nasty infection. (After all, what good did mold ever do anybody?)

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  • This feels familiar, but it may just be that I'm reminded of aspects of de Camp's "Wheels of If", Moore's "Vintage Season" and Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag" - I could imagine it having been published in "Unknown Worlds" or "Astounding" in the '40s. – user888379 Aug 12 '20 at 1:44
  • @user888379 I'm very familiar with all three, but I hadn't really thought of connecting them to this one. "Wheels of If" probably comes closest -- it deals with going "sideways in time" to where it is still "the same year," but history took a different turn centuries ago, instead of just people or artifacts from a better future coming back to the 20th Century. Also, the other two had tragic endings. Although in "Wheels of If" I was never convinced that it was perfectly all right for the main character to deliberately leave his analogs stranded in each other's bodies in other timelines. – Lorendiac Aug 12 '20 at 1:53

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