It’s Never Lupus, But It’s All Grist

Kage Baker enjoyed pretty good health most of her life – until she died of cancer.

She didn’t like the hand that Fate dealt, but she didn’t think it was especially unfair, either. As she remarked, towards the end, “Well, you gotta die of something. There are no real immortals; or if there are, I’m not a member of the club.” So she figured it was a fair cop, if not a final diagnosis she would have chosen had anyone given her the menu.

She had a bad patch of illness as a small child – every rash under the sun, 2 or 3 at a time. She either got more kinds of measles than anyone in the world, or never developed immunity to them. She got rheumatic and scarlet fevers. The only childhood disease she managed to avoid was mumps, and then she caught that when she was 30 years old.

Her tonsils also waited until adulthood to revolt, but that was easily handled. And she stopped catching colds and bronchitis after the tonsils were out, too, so she counted that as a net gain. All in all, a pretty standard health history; with no especially weird or wacky diseases – until she developed the rare uterine cancer that killed her.

Nonetheless, Kage – like a lot of people – enjoyed a mild hypochondria from time to time. Access to the Internet made it ever-easier to browse symptoms and decide what rare maritime diseases of the spleen might be troubling one; she had a good time doing that. Being of sound mind, she could never actually convince herself that she did have liver flukes or abdominal migraines or fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva – but exploring the idea gave her a lot of information of strange physiological and metabolic processes. And most of that got applied in some way to the Operatives.

I remember a point about halfway through the Company series, when Harcourt Brace had dropped her and  Tor had not yet stepped in heroically to take up her series. Kage was having stomach pains. She complained that her stomach hurt when it was empty.

Said I, “Then you’re hungry, silly.”

“No, eating hurts too, after a while. I think I have an ulcer,” Kage explained. “I’m under a lot of stress right now, with the writing.”

“Stress doesn’t cause ulcers. They’re caused by an infection with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. That was discovered in 1982, by some Australians,” I informed her.

“Really?” Kage was intrigued beyond a stomach-ache.  “How does a bacterium live in all that stomach acid?”

“It neutralizes acid, then hides from it.. You probably don’t have it, though. Your stomach hurts because you’ve been living on cherry Coke and Doritos for the last month.”

“That was good enough in high school!” she said.

“Yeah, but it’s careless when you’re past 30. Let’s go get some chowder.”

And over bowls of the (absolutely fabulous) clam chowder at The Splash Cafe in Pismo, Kage had me explain how Helicobacter pylori did its evil work. How it burrows into stomach lining cells, hides from acid under the mucus layer, possesses both chemical acid defenses and flagella that let it scurry about with great agility; how it can change shape from a spiral to a coccoid form; how it is extensively adapted to living in human beings.

She was fascinated. The idea that the belly aches attributed from classical times to stress, bad temper, choler and yummy spicy foods were actually caused by a well-adapted bacterium vastly intrigued her. As did the idea that it could change shape and hide in the very cells it was victimizing, and had taken such a loooong time to identify …

A few months later, she used the habits of Helicobacter pylori as the basis for the Operative-killing disease that Victor the Vector eventually looses on the evil Plague Cabal. That astounding scene at the end of the Great Dinner in Sons of Heaven, its dark baroque power based on a conversation about bacteria over clam chowder …

All due to poor eating habits, stomach pains and a little hypochondria. Which just goes to prove, yet again, that minor aches and pains are no reason not to sit down and write. And that absolutely everything is grist for the writer’s mill.



About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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3 Responses to It’s Never Lupus, But It’s All Grist

  1. mizkizzle says:

    That’s interesting about the story behind the Plague in the Company series.
    I enjoy reading about odd illnesses even though I have the kind of gloomy, vivid imagination that makes me convinced that I have them. Sometimes I do. Once I had a bizarre disease that turned my poop white. I forget the name of it but it would be amusing if there was a telethon for it; complete with heart rending pleas for donations from people like Bernadette Peters and Ricky Arnaz Jr.


  2. Becky Miller says:

    Creepy. Wonderfully creepy and fascinating.


    • Kate says:

      Isn’t it? I love creepy, personally. Kage did not, much – she never read Steven King because, she said, he was TOO good – but I do, and love it. And Kage herself could write some really creepiness when the fit took her. She used to tell me stories on the road, in the dark, that made me curse and yell at her to stop. Kept me awake, though!


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