Sometimes life really does imitate art. In 1994, Tom Clancy published “Debt of Honor,” a Jack Ryan thriller that climaxes with a catastrophic attack on the Capitol Building that eerily presaged 9/11 seven years later.
In the wake of tragic day, the Department of Homeland Security gave some select thriller writers a mission: conceive the next big attack on the country. We’ll never know how prescient the project, called “Red Cell,” actually turned out to be. We do know, though, that while thriller writers may not be able to predict the future, our work is based on anticipating it. And that's just what any number of bestselling authors did in penning books centered on pandemics and their aftermaths.
Let’s start with the granddaddy of them all, Michal Crichton’s seminal The Andromeda Strain which imagines an alien microbe with the potential to wipe out mankind. The five scientists assigned to Scoop Mission Control as part of Project Wildfire dissect the killer organism with the best technology afforded by 1969 standards, only to learn once they thought they’d figured everything out, the microbe mutated leaving them at wit’s end and back at the starting line. As John Timmer wrote for Ars Technica on May 5, “When COVID-19 made the jump into humans late last year, it was remarkably well adapted to spread among us. But that doesn't mean things couldn't get worse, as the virus will undoubtedly pick up new mutations as its population expands, some of which might make it more dangerous to humans. In fact, a draft paper recently posted online claimed to have evidence that a more infectious strain of COVID-19 had already evolved.” Meaning things could get worse still, much worse. And, some would say, they have already with the discovery of the fatal inflammatory disease suddenly showing up in children with the disease, along with the very real possibility it will become airborne.
Taking that a step further, in Children of Men, P. D. James envisions a desperately dark world in which adults have lost the capacity to reproduce. Though no explanation is ever given, some sort of microbe here too is the most likely suspect, giving rise to a totalitarian state that seizes power with civilization on the verge of collapse. Sound familiar? As the New York Times reported on March 30, “In Hungary, the prime minister can now rule by decree. In Britain, ministers have what a critic called ‘eye-watering’ power to detain people and close borders. Israel’s prime minister has shut down courts and begun an intrusive surveillance of citizens. Chile has sent the military to public squares once occupied by protesters. Bolivia has postponed elections.”
In Stephen King’s The Stand, meanwhile, a world ravaged by the “Captain Tripps” virus turns to tribalism with the forces of Mother Abigail warring against the Las Vegas-based minions of the demonic Randall Flagg, the so-called “Walkin’ Dude.” In that respect, COVID-19’s widening of our nation’s already deep social and economic divisions, with even the reopening issue the subject of deep partisan divide. To that point, writing for the Social Sciences Research Council on April 23, president of the Social Science Research Council Alondra Nelson posed, “What should be our prevailing theory of society after pandemic intervention breaks what we thought we knew about economy, governance, and expertise, and confirms what we know, but failed to address about social inequality?”
The fatalist worlds envisioned by Richard Matheson in I am Legend and Max Brooks in World War Z go The Stand one better by presaging a societal breakdown on an epic level with survivors fighting for what’s left of their lives against vampires and zombies respectively. Those monsters are actually metaphors in the micro for the total collapse of civilization in the macro. “Complex societies are social structures which are susceptible to collapse because complexity increases vulnerability,” Major General SG Vombatkere wrote for the Decann Herald on March 25. “When a sub-system in a complex system breaks down, it can be ‘repaired’ to restore the system’s normal functioning. Simultaneous breakdown of multiple sub-systems can become critical, necessitating resuscitation measures. It is analogous to multiple-organ failure in a human body—beyond a point, resuscitation in intensive care fails.”
Which brings us to Emily St. John Mendel’s award-winning Station Eleven, a book that picks up in the aftermath of a virus that has wiped out 99% of the world’s population. That’s a body count at least on par with any of the previous books and maybe the most bludgeoning of them all. The difference? The book serves up optimism for mankind’s future in the form of a traveling, minstrel-like band of actors striving to return a degree of normalcy to the lives of the survivors they come across. To that point, “There is no minimizing the horrors of the Black Death,” wrote David Rothkopf for USA Today on March 30. “But for those who lived through it, survival demanded innovation and adaptation. We do not face anything so severe. But we do know that throughout history, serious crises resulted in innovation born of the optimism that somehow society would live on and ultimately recover.”
Of all these fictional scenarios, Station Eleven serves up the most likely one we are destined to experience in the wake of COVID-19. History has taught as much, trumping fiction when it comes to the overarching theme of the general goodness of man. Even in I am Legend, scientist Robert Neville’s cure for the virus works. The Stand features Mother Abigail’s forces ultimate triumph over Randall Flagg’s. And Children of Men evolves into a dystopic celebration of life from which mankind is destined to survive, providing one antidote above all others that can beat the coronavirus: