The year is 2092. It’s an election year, but the nation’s attention is elsewhere. Troubling reports from abroad warn of a deadly plague. “At the commencement of summer, we began to feel that the mischief which had taken place in distant countries was greater than we had at first suspected.” Soon, danger is at their doorstep. “Can it be true… that whole countries are laid waste, whole nations annihilated, by these disorders in nature? The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin.”
Published in 1826, these passages are drawn from The Last Man by Mary Shelley, one of the earliest examples of pandemic literature. Thanks to COVID-19, this subgenre of science fiction is receiving abundant attention as of late. Severance by Ling Ma and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel have more or less been dubbed the official novels of quarantine and, on the movie end, Contagion and Outbreak held the throne before Tiger King’s glorious, kitschy ascent.
Works in this genre usually fall into two camps. In the first, the plague is worming its way through the world, felling cities with an invisible hand. In the second, a band of survivors scrapes by in a wasteland of a world ravaged by disease.
The latest addition to this genre, The End of October by Lawrence Wright, falls into the first category. Though COVID-19 has delayed the publication date of many books, it conjured a perfect storm for this particular novel. The End of October tracks a deadly new disease (“it could be a coronavirus, like SARS or MERS,” muses the protagonist at one point) as a brilliant epidemiologist struggles to stave off a pandemic and return home to his family.
The aforementioned protagonist, Dr. Henry Parsons, who is known for his heroic efforts in combatting the Ebola outbreak, takes it upon himself to investigate a mysterious outbreak in Indonesia, despite reassuring reports from the local government. The outbreak occurred in a camp housing persecuted gay people, many of whom were HIV-positive and immunocompromised. In other words, the perfect breeding ground for a novel virus.
This fictional disease — the “Kongoli flu” — is frequently compared to the Spanish flu of 1918, for the way it affects the body and the magnitude of contagiousness. Frighteningly, it doesn’t attack the elderly and weak, but rather the strongest members of society with the greatest vitality. Of those infected, Wright writes, “Their powerful immune response was killing them, just as in 1918, by filling the lungs with fluids to fight the infection but drowning the body in the process.”
Hope of containment, however, is soon lost. Though Henry was able to quickly identify patient zero, his driver, an elderly, affable Muslim man, makes the grave mistake of accompanying Henry into the diseased camp. While Henry remains on site under quarantine for the next seven days, his driver bids his family and friends farewell before boarding a plane to Saudi Arabia for hajj, a religious pilgrimage to Mecca. What’s incredible about pandemics is how a single person can unknowingly bring a world to its knees.
Mecca might be the worst place for an infected person to travel. Millions of people congregate there into incredibly tight quarters and then fly back to their respective homes all across the globe. This, according to an interview between Wright and David Remnick of the New Yorker, was “a real leap of imagination” and “doesn’t begin to compare with what China did with 60 million people.” Even though they take the outlandish step of quarantining the holy city, the virus inevitably breaks loose.
When combating a pandemic, time is our greatest resource, and worst adversary. From the beginning of The End of October, everything is a race. From identifying patient zero to mandating a quarantine, all of these containment measures are an effort to buy more time for the scientific community to understand the disease — how it spreads, its symptoms, its incubation period, and eventually, how to combat it with a vaccine.
Generally speaking, entertainment media has a good grasp of this concept. To that end, all pandemic stories, from The Last Man to Contagion, heighten feelings of anxiety and dread by bending time and manipulating narrative structure to maximize suspense. Writers want us to feel the floodgates tremble and then buckle.
Where movies and books start to go astray is with regards to timelines. The movie Outbreak, for instance, is “probably the worst example” of how an outbreak really happens according to Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters. “It makes for good entertainment, but it’s not how pandemics work.”
Contagion, on the other hand, had several “serious advisors,” Schlegelmilch tells me, including “members of the CDC” and “officials from the NYC Department of Health.” This is evidenced by the lengthy amount of time it took to develop a vaccine as well as the now infamous closing scene that reveals the “spillover” of the virus, leaping from bat to pig to human. (Wright refers to pigs as “virus factories,” explaining they’re “an almost perfect bridge between avian influenzas and human disease. Once inside a pig, the virus adapted itself to mammals.”)
Wright, a reporter by training, also consulted numerous health experts, as noted in the acknowledgments, and has a solid grasp on lab protocol and realistic timelines for development of a vaccine. But where Wright’s reporting background really shines, and where this book might distinguish itself from others in the genre, is how skillfully he dramatizes the decision-making processes of government officials who operate behind closed doors.
There, in the oak-paneled upper echelons of power, early warnings from health officials fell on deaf ears. A pest from the CDC recommended comprehensive containment measures — “borders closed, sports and entertainment facilities shuttered, nonemergency cases discharged from hospitals, schools closed” and so on. But leadership in government is more concerned with public perception than public health. The deadly virus quickly becomes a political pawn between world powers vying for supremacy and, for one ambitious Homeland Security official, a means to advance her personal influence with the president.
Though I’m speaking of the novel, this prognosis could sadly be mistaken for our current reality.
The government’s handling of COVID-19 is ongoing and many memos are yet to see the light of day, but what’s obvious is how woefully unprepared they were. Based on Wright’s track record in researching and reporting The Looming Tower about the growth of Al Qaeda, I have reason to suspect his portrait of U.S. officials’ response to disaster (i.e., their willingness to use the disease as a pawn to advance pre-existing agendas against other world powers and as personal leverage to accrue greater influence) doesn’t entirely miss the mark.
But perhaps what’s most gripping about The End of October is everyone’s response to the pandemic. It’s fascinating not only because of our current predicament, but also because Wright’s baseline reality so closely adhered to present-day geopolitics. His novel is basically a thought experiment as to what would happen if a pandemic was unleashed. As we’ve come to learn, our lives can sometimes depend on our ability, and willingness, to accept new realities. In this case, the realities of socially-distanced life.
Still, as much as The End of October gets right about disease outbreaks, it falls for the most common trapping of pandemic literature, which also happens to be Schlegelmilch’s biggest beef with the genre. They always “assume widespread public panic,” which is actually very rare after disasters. As history shows, people are more likely to band together to do their best to oust an invisible enemy. “You’ll get clusters of civil unrest,” concedes Schlegelmilch, “but generally people will be there for each other.”