The quick answer to the title of this post is: of course!
Science fiction doesn’t try to predict individual events. It looks at societal trends and tries to envision the implications of those trends. Epidemics and pandemics have happened many times in human history, but the more we improved our means of traveling from place to place, and the more interconnected our global society became, the more we increased the potential of a disease outbreak affecting every human on the planet. As this trend became apparent, fiction writers took to it like a virus to a growth culture.
So there have been lots of stories featuring pandemics although, to my recollection, not as many that take place during the spread of the infection. Movies seem to have dipped into that well more often, including some nail-biting examples like 1995’s Outbreak and the one everyone’s watching on Netflix lately, the 2011 film Contagion. A much larger number of novels take place before or after the pandemic.
The “befores” range from vintage thriller The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean to one of the first great technothrillers, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. “Afters” are too numerous to mention, but some standouts include Stephen King’s The Stand, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
A fictional pandemic is a convenient way of creating a post-apocalyptic setting with a drastically reduced human population and a devastated social infrastructure—a perfect environment for lots of gritty and emotional drama.
It’s a little harder to understand why so much of pandemic fiction involves plagues that turn people into zombies. Examples include I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and World War Z by Max Brooks. It’s a sub-genre in itself, but aren’t real pandemics scary enough?
It can be fun imagining the chills and challenges such a bleak setting can provide. It’s no fun at all actually living through a scenario like that. Like Covid-19.
Every story’s a little different, but it’s possible to list some of the things that pandemic fiction predicts will happen, and compare them to what we’re really seeing:
People will flee the cities: There’s been no mass exodus yet. However, where I live in Ontario, Canada, many people have left their city homes to isolate themselves at their vacation properties. Sensible, at first glance, except if they do get sick or injured, the health care facilities in such places will be overwhelmed.
Governments will be unprepared: Real examples are everywhere. Most are just from a lack of foresight, but some responses, like from the Trump White House, look more like criminal negligence.
Food and other essential supplies will quickly become scarce: So far only toilet paper! (What in hell is that about anyway???) Supply chains are holding up well to this point, except for critical medical supplies like masks and ventilators, but if the crisis is prolonged and even more stringent lockdowns are necessary, some rationing might become necessary.
Looting becomes rampant: It’s easy to see why this would be expected, given that so many businesses are temporarily abandoned. But I haven’t heard about it going on. Maybe it’s low priority news, or perhaps police are keeping quiet about it, but really, who are thieves going to sell the stuff to? When so many people see themselves as potential victims of this, I think most folks will alert the police rather than rewarding lowlifes who take advantage of a pandemic to rob the unfortunate. Hopefully, too, governments’ support of people unable to work will keep them from having to steal out of necessity.
Powerful people will act like warlords, hoarding and creating their own fiefdoms: There is some hoarding going on, but mostly it seems to be misguided morons hoping to make money off people’s fears. Fortunately, governments are cracking down hard on these people (as they should) and there’s no need to take their bait.
As to survivalist compounds and the like? The reality is that trying to hide from the infection as a group would not be smart. All it would take is one carrier to get in and suddenly your protected compound is like a cruise ship. Much better to isolate ourselves individually. Whether that value equation could change if food becomes more scarce is anybody’s guess.
It’s every man for himself: I guess we SF writers are a cynical lot, or maybe it’s just inherently more dramatic, but the greatest danger from a fictional pandemic (once the disease has run its course) is from other humans. People turn violent, fighting over every scrap—to hell with friendships and any sort of benevolence toward our fellow beings.
Of course, the reality we’re seeing is the opposite of that. People are eager to help others, friends, family, and strangers, especially assisting the elderly with visits and deliveries. Not to mention the selflessness of front-line health care workers, first responders, and so many people in every kind of service industry doing their part.
It’s truly heartwarming and inspiring and, believe me, we writers would love to continue to be proven wrong!
We’re also seeing a lot of things I’m not sure any writers predicted. The weird stuff includes a rise in street-racing (because traffic is so sparse), shoppers emptying the toilet paper aisles in grocery stores (you can’t eat toilet paper, people!!), and some misguided religious leaders blithely ignoring calls to avoid gathering in groups. Stupidity is not a blessing.
On the good side, who could have predicted how businesses like restaurants are adapting to lockdown restrictions? Or that manufacturers would re-tool their factories to produce ventilators and even invent better ones, while idled fabric workers sew masks for hospitals? Who would have thought that neighbours would do communal exercising in their front yards across from one another, or have parties by sitting alone on their front steps talking to each other on the phone?
Who knew that artists and performers would offer free online concerts, readings, theatre shows; that experts would provide free lessons of every kind; that teachers would provide home schooling resources and parents so diligently share them? In fact, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the way online socializing and sharing has soared—it’s a new phenomenon peaking at just the right time. Ain’t human ingenuity a wonder? And kindness. Let’s not forget kindness.
There’s even some evidence that this unplanned wrench in our collective plans is giving our planet some much-needed relief from our constant abuse.
So while relatively few fictional pandemics turn out well, there’s good reason to hope that the real thing will have a much happier ending.
Do your part. Help where you can. Stay home as much as humanly possible. After all, there are lots of great books to read!
P.S. Goodreads has a list of Popular Pandemic Books here.
Scott Oveton’s debut novel Dead Air was first published by Scrivener Press. Read a sample chapter, watch the book trailer, and more here. His short stories have been published in On Spec, Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, the anthologies Tesseracts Sixteen: Parnassus Unbound, Doomology: The Dawning Of Disasters, Canadian Tales of the Fantastic and elsewhere. Scott's a member of the Canadian Authors Association, SFCanada, and a past President of the Sudbury Writers Guild. Visit Scott’s website here.
Scott’s novels, including his most recent, The Primus Labyrinth, are available here.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops, weekly online writing classes, and weekend retreats in, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Southampton, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.