A few days ago, I finished the first draft of my fifth book, The Ghost Map. In some ways, this book is a departure for me, but in other ways, it has a great deal of continuity with my earlier books, particularly Emergence. The most significant change is that this book has a single, sustained narrative line running through it, a first for me. It's the story of the Broad Street cholera outbreak that took place in London in September of 1854. The outbreak itself was arguably the deadliest in London's history -- it literally decimated the western side of Soho, killing more than ten percent of the population there in a matter of eight days -- but it is most famous for the map that the physician and epidemiologist John Snow made of the outbreak, a map that eventually helped convince the world that cholera was in fact a waterborne illness, and not transmitted via the air as the then-dominant miasma theory maintained.
More than a few of you are probably familiar with the broad strokes of the story. It is something of a classic of both public health and information design. (Tufte wrote about it in two of his books.) But the story has traditionally been condensed down to a shorthand rendition that gets many of the facts wrong, and ignores some of the most interesting elements. In many ways, the story of Broad Street is all about the triumph of a certain kind of urbanism in the face of great adversity, the power of dense cities to create solutions to problems that they themselves have brought about. So many of the issues that define the modern world today -- the runaway growth of megacities, environmental crises, fears of apocalyptic epidemics, digital mapping, the need for clean water, urban terror, the rise of amateur expertise -- are there, in embryo, in the Broad Street outbreak.
So The Ghost Map is in part a disease thriller, with some genuinely spooky and unsettling narrative turns. But it also widens its focus to tell the history of London's sewer system, the evolutionary history of bacteria, the biological and cultural roots of the miasma theory, the bizarre waste management techniques of Victorian society, and so on. It is the story of ten days in London in 1854, but it's also an attempt to tell that story at three different scales of experience: from the point of view of the humans living through it, but also from the point of view of the cholera itself, and the city. I'm still in the middle of it, with some substantial edits to come, but right now I feel like it's the best thing I've done, by a fairly wide margin. But you all will be the judge of that.
It comes out in the U.S. this October. For those of you wondering why I'm just mentioning this book now, see this post from the last time around.