A delivery man cycles next to an empty square between La Almudena Cathedral and the Royal Palace during partial lockdown as part of a 15-day state of emergency to combat the coronavirus disease outbreak (COVID-19) in Madrid, Spain, March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina
One of the first science-fiction novels that I read was HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). The invading Martians are wreaking havoc. Just when all seems lost, humanity is saved — by “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”
The Martians, unused to earth’s bacteria, perish where they stand. In a stirring passage, Wells sums up our eternal struggle with the germ: “By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”
That must be our consolation while the coronavirus sweeps through the planet. Pandemics allow writers to take an X-ray of society. The insidious breakdown of bonds, the betrayal of our own bodies, enables a kind of living post-mortem of the body politic.
A cough, a sore threat, a heaviness in the head, earlier dismissed as minor irritants, now announce the ticking clock. As novelist Katherine Ann Porter who wrote about the last great global pandemic, the 1918 Spanish flu said, “the body is a curious monster” and that it is “no place to live in”.
Stephen King’s The Stand written in 1978.
My interest in this malignant sub-genre was sparked by an encounter with Alistair Maclean’s The Satan Bug (1962), featuring a poliovirus weaponised into a powder. There is a bravura passage where a scientist explains that all he has to do is take a “salt-spoon of this powder, go outside … and turn the salt-spoon upside down”, and all life would cease to exist in Britain and then the world.
“Who, what will be the last to go?... Perhaps the great albatross for ever winging its way round the bottom of the world. Perhaps a handful of Eskimos deep in the Arctic basin. But the seas travel the world over, and so also do the winds: one day, one day soon, they too would die." This mental image -- turn a spoon upside down, end the world -- infected my memory permanently.
I decide to self-isolate myself with a box of “pestilential thrillers”, books in this penumbral zone between the medical thriller, science fiction and horror. Hyderabadis seem nonchalant – after all, the history of the city is intertwined with disease; it is popularly held that the Charminar was built to commemorate a severe plague outbreak.
This nonchalance also affects our view of these thrillers, almost all written for a Western audience. In India, any aspiring fictional epidemic has to do well to rise above the noise. For instance, we clock 17,000 deaths a year from malaria; even the “normal” death rate is high: 400 per day from traffic accidents alone.
All these novels usually start with a bout of ominous coughing. In Sidin Vadukut’s Bombay Fever (2017), we read early on, “She coughed a few times as she opened the iPad’s Photos app and swiped through the images”. We know it is a kind of Chekov’s cough — this is not going to end well.
The key, though, in this morbid genre, is designing the “obligate pathogen”, the microorganism whose only purpose is to sicken. You pick either a virus or a bacteria. Vadukut, for example, goes for bacteria, in order to highlight the dangers of antibiotic overuse and the rise of drug-resistant strains.
The trick, unless you are gunning for the apocalypse, is to find a balance between the fatality rate and the R0, its ability to infect others. The coronavirus outperforms its fictional counterparts; the actual progression is insidious, allowing the seeds of dread to germinate, in what author Robin Sloan calls, “the battle between intuition & exponentiation”.
Just as the virus uses our cellular mechanism to develop copies, so has it colonised our informational space. It is merely 8 KB (kilobytes) in size but has generated hundreds of petabytes — all those memes, TikTok videos, WhatsApp forwards — in an informational shockwave that weakens our “host” civilisation.
The other important element is to give it a gimmick, some cool way in which it kills its victims. In Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), the victims turn scarlet, as alarming a symptom as it can get.
In Vadukut’s novel, victims literally melt into a puddle of blood. My personal favourite are the “Triangles” in Scott Sigler’s Infected (2008) series; here the twist is that the pathogen manipulates neuro-transmitters — apart from the fever, the patients are also victims of raging hallucinations.
Then comes the setting. Do we watch the action unfold amidst the howling mobs on the streets, or in the cool, clinical confines of a laboratory? My first experience in this genre was Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), where a satellite has crashed near a small town, bearing microorganisms harvested from the upper atmosphere. The entire town is wiped out, with just two survivors, an elderly drunkard and a bawling baby. What is the common point that enabled their survival?
Here, there is no mass mayhem. The action takes place inside a silo and Crichton constructs a scientific puzzle as a team of elite scientists struggle to unlock the secrets. The germ is an implacable monster, ever mutable, as living a character as the humans. Impeccably written as it is, it still works within the trappings of the thriller; after various twists, the Good Guys win.
Many writers, however, discovered a new vantage point, that of the survivor addressing the post-apocalyptic age, haunted by memories of the Golden Age before the fall. Such novels purveyed “desolation porn”, long descriptions of the urbanscape, now denuded of teeming millions. In London’s novel, a former professor of English literature muses to his bored, hunter-gatherer grandchildren, that “the fleeting systems lapse like foam”.
In our school library, I chanced upon a venerable copy of Earth Abides by George Stewart (my school library for some reason had an encyclopaedic collection of post-apocalyptic fiction, presumably to prepare us for an uncertain future). This 1949 novel is little known today but has inspired creators widely, from Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) to the videogame The Last of Us. A strain of mutated measles wipes out most of the human race. A survivor attempts to reboot civilisation but his children refuse to play along, preferring the untrammelled life of the barbarian. My teenage sensibilities were shocked by this downbeat ending. I still expected a hero to save the day, even if allowing civilisation’s collapse was the ecologically-correct choice.
Our current outbreak will still be remembered by the earth, however fleetingly. Just as our bodies with its antibodies form a register of all the infections that we ever had, so does the planet. As systems engineer Julian Oliver tweeted, “The sudden drop in CO2e, and other GHGs due to market slowdown, will forever reside in a geological record, written now by trees and in ice, later stitched into sediment and rock, things and places that the virus itself never touched.” In China, the cleaner air and blue skies have all been noticed. A curious effect could be that the virus could well be a net saver of life — a virus invested with the power of a thousand Thunbergs.
Stephen King opts for a moral showdown instead of saving the pandas. His giant elephant’s foot of a book, over 1,000 pages, irresistibly attracted me as a schoolboy. We follow the progress of a modified influenza virus, as it escapes an American bio-weapon facility, leaping from person to person. The warning is stark: containment facilities rarely contain.
In general, the works that stand out focus on the societal effects, the panic of the apes. Vadukut accurately predicts the rise of the WhatsApp uncles and their doom-laden groups. In Graham Masterton’s novel Plague (1977), a right-wing group spreads rumours that blacks and Mexicans are the vectors of the disease and incites mobs to burn down their ghettos. The hero and a small group flee, and they “felt as if the whole world had died around them — as if they were consigned to drive for the rest of their lives down dull, rainy streets of empty cities, searching for an America that had gone for ever.” I would speculate that here the unit would be the gated communities; middle-class India making its stand like fortress-cities in medieval Italy.It must be pointed out that India has been through far worse, the Spanish flu killed 5 per cent of the Indian population, around 18 million, yet utterly failed in making a mark on the Indian psyche. The country still suffers from PTSD from Partition, whose death toll was negligible compared to the flu. You might think these numbers are unimaginable — 5 per cent of the population, scaling up, would be 65 million — but they still wouldn’t make a dent in our demographic juggernaut. It won’t be as clean as Thanos’s snap of the fingers, though.
The difference today is that no one is going to die without sending half a dozen tweets or an Instagram story or two. This contagious panic will be what gets us, not the virus. We live at the end of complicated logistical chains that will snap and sever. In Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag finds this panic as “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide”.
What protects the middle class in India is the presence of so many daily wagers, who keep the wheels turning, unlike the US, where the population has been conditioned to flee to the hills, thanks to countless films and books like what we just discussed.
Earth Abides by George Stewart
Of course, we have been looking at all this through our own very selfish selves. Novels like Charles Pellegrino’s Dust (1998) turn this around. We can conceive of the earth as Gaia, a living planet. It is heating up, running a temperature, trying to break the infection that is the human race. The coronavirus and the others that will follow are mere immune-system responses.
We are the Martians now. We are the obligate pathogens.
Jaideep Unudurti is a writer in Hyderabad