Real Pandemics and Science Fiction
Recently I was approached by Guardian journalist Laura Spinney to offer a comment on the way in which the current situation with the Coronavirus might be affecting/influencing or inspiring writers of science fiction. The article is available here. I sent over a fair bit more of my thinking on this, so here's my reply in full:
Hi Laura, thanks for reaching out. Good to meet you.
I recently did an interview for a Goldsmiths Journalism student related to current themes in Science Fiction and I’ve spent the last three years writing about a pandemic ruining the world for the computer game Phoenix Point (http://www.phoenixpoint.info) for Snapshot Games. The game was released in December, so you can imagine the sense of personal irony to completing that process and then watching what is happening in the world. I spent a lot of time researching epidemics and disease protocols in bio-chemical laboratories. Even then, I really did not appreciate how many of the details of a global pandemic would play out.
It is certainly the case that historically, popular SF writers in the early part of the twentieth century were looking towards the stars and towards Utopian ideals. Some explored more nuanced themes, but these stories are less remembered, perhaps.
SF writers are always using what is happening and weaving the prevalent themes of culture and politics into their work. The trick is for those themes to be inspiration for a writer to explore the qualities of humanity, how we manage in adversity and change. In 2008, the late Terry Pratchett spoke to some of my graduating creative writing students at Buckinghamshire New University about creating good science fiction. He suggested that a way of approaching SF writing is to change one thing and then see how that impacts on society. So, prior to this actually happening, a global pandemic would be a way of doing that. I doubt many stories will be about people sitting at home in their pyjamas taking Zoom calls and struggling to tame their unruly hair.
I recently reviewed The Day It Finally Happens: The Good News About our Worst Nightmares and the Bad News About Some of our Wildest Dreams (2019) by Mike Pearl. The case studies examine a variety of possible near future situations and how they might play out. Strangely, he didn’t include a global pandemic in his list. (Edit: He did, however, write about antibiotics running out).
That said, there is a danger of reality jumping the shark. In 2016, I got 80,000 words into a novel where an alien came to Earth to wipe out humanity for the benefit of the rest of the world’s eco-system and infected the political classes with a virus that caused them to make crazy decisions, like Brexit and electing Donald Trump. I’m still trying to find a way to make the story work! One day I will find a way!
The swirling factual/fictional narratives of social media, with causes and connections made between the random and ridiculous as fads, filter bubbles and echo chambers is also a fertile environment for the imagination. A lot of Science Fiction writing concerns itself with rationalising the premise as an extension to the real. Fantasy and Horror are less bound by this rationalising framework, so they focus on the visceral nature of the experience, or the escape from our concerns into another, imaginary world.
All of these elements circle, creating the modern myths of our time. Marina Warner wrote extensively about the way in which the prevalent themes of Fantasy and Horror tap into our fears and dreams. (Edit: You can still find her Reith Lectures on the BBC website here)
In the Phoenix Point world, the virus became a conscious enemy – one the players and readers could personify and see as an evil alien mind, determined to destroy their way of life. That’s a simplification, but it is often the simplification that stories rely on, allowing the reader to see evil defeated or destroyed. In the real world, that’s not going to happen. The Coronavirus is not the sentient enemy of humanity, trying to burn us away as part of some evil master plan. We see that kind of language applied in news reports and media broadcasts. It creates a blurring between how we see the world and the worlds of many fictions. Sure, we can make the distinction between what is real and what isn’t in each case, but the continual consumption of stories where the world’s evils can be identified and eliminated does have an influence in making people think the world’s problems can be solved in the same way, leading to some sort of happy ending.
Pandemics don’t tend to fit with so well with happy endings either. People get sick and die, they don’t come back. The best you can get is a stop to the dying, or saving someone who might have died without a cure. There is the sub-genre of Zombie fiction, but in those stories, the victims become the monsters, and there’s a tragic element to the way in which those we care about have to be butchered after death. Much of that set of stories relies on them being a fear at a distance – a supernatural fear that we can push away as being unrealistic and unbelievable. Perhaps that’s why flu epidemics haven’t received the same kind of attention in the past? The way in which many genre fiction writers would approach them would be to embellish and dramatize the ‘plague’. Literary fiction writers might focus more on the lives and relationships of people living in such circumstances, which would be a more sensitive way to look at such a setting.
I took a quick read of Laura's piece and it’s an interesting observational balance, making a distinction between how different writers might approach the topic of a global pandemic in their writing. I do think many genre writers would look to make this a crisis that could be solved, simplifying the situation into a challenging plot that a plucky protagonist could overcome with some wit and ingenuity. Given the experience we are all going through, that sort of story will probably feel superficial now. Our acquired knowledge of the situation, our understanding of this being a circumstance that we have all shared with a vast diversity of individual real life stories happening right now means attempting to encapsulate the whole of the pandemic as a plot threat feels in some way inadequate.
There is also a nearness to reality that feels disturbing. The Covid-19 pandemic is a global killer. People have died. No writer would want to intentionally cheapen or disrespect the loss that thousands of individuals have suffered.
With Phoenix Point, the approach Jonas Kyratzes and I took to creating a world threat was to assemble stories from all around the globe. Many of the excerpts on the website, and in the anthology book – The Briefing, released to backers of the game this year are telling the personal narratives of people caught up in circumstances far beyond their control. Granted, some of these individuals were trying to save humanity and get to the bottom of what was happening, but the key of what we were trying to do was to follow Aristotle’s advice on epics an assemble lots of different voices and styles, to give a sense of scale.
We are intending to publish The Briefing more generally at some point late in 2020 or early 2021.
There was also a careful trick in the mythos. The interpretation of the Phoenix Point enemy being an evil threat rather than an alien species with a conflicting agenda comes initially from humanity anthropomorphising its adversary. This is a theme that I’d like to develop further in my writing in other stories in the future.
H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is probably his most famous story today. The way it cuts against modern genre fiction’s tendency to create characters who rise to the challenge, discover the enemy’s weakness and act to defeat them means that Wells’ work still resonates today. Our narrator is inadequate to the trial and instead, becomes a witness to the war. The defeat of the enemy is achieved by a source humanity could not produce or expect – a virus. Ironic when compared to what we’re living through now.
It is that sense of enduring and witnessing events that feels more sensitive and realistic in these difficult times.
Having been at a distance from others for weeks and months, I do think people have an appetite for stories right now. Firstly, these will be the stories of their friends and family members they have been unable to keep up with as we re-establish contact and learn of their experiences.
After that, there will be a place for fiction set in the times we are going through. There is an immediate connection and identification with characters who share something of what we have endured.