Writing and pandemics have gone together for centuries. Boccaccio’s Decameron has twelve people escaping from the Black Death in fourteenth century Florence. They tell each other stories while isolating themselves in a secluded villa just outside the city. In a similar way Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales describes a group of pilgrims travelling in a time of plague, once again entertaining each other with storytelling.
More recently a whole genre of speculative and science fiction has grown up around diseases which wipe out significant portions of humanity. Starting with zombie tales, traced back to Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, we move through John Windham’s The Day of the Triffids in the 1950s, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain in the 1960s, to a whole host of modern films and stories about disease apocalypse.
So what’s this all about?
Part of it I think is simply technical. To tell a story you need a manageable scenario. Disease has the natural effect of shrinking the scene, of focusing things on a small group of people. The world is all big, bustling and unmanageable one minute: the next you have a handful of people hunkered down in a villa outside Florence.
More significantly, disease also has the effect of stripping back complex situations into simple ones. Pandemic fiction asks basic questions – are people more human when they focus on themselves as individuals, or when they reach out as widely as possible to work with others? How do you balance living for yourself against living for others? Is it better to compete or cooperate?
Look at Bill Masen in John Wyndham’s 1951 book The Day of the Triffids. After getting over the shock of civilisation falling apart following the onset of widespread blindness, Bill begins to feel oddly empowered. He thinks of himself as “emerging as my own master,” no longer a cog in a huge society where an individual can feel lost. But the whole book is also a graphic depiction of the misery that comes when people lose a society where they are linked up, each playing a small, specialised role in something bigger. Without this kind of society, an individual is reduced to scraping a living on a lonely farm somewhere.
This classic pandemic fiction theme is reflected in our present, situation, dealing with coronavirus. Many people react by wanting to compete for what they see as scarce resources, grabbing excessive toilet rolls, bottles of hand sanitiser or bags of spaghetti. In fictional terms this compares to Bill Masen facing a lot of cut throat competition for resources in The Day of the Triffids. While Bill enjoys feeling all individual and empowered, the downside is endless and dangerous disputes with other survivors. It is no surprise that eventually Bill decides on a more cooperative approach.
People tend to divide at a time like this, and of course some distancing is very wise. But equally people also have an instinct to work together. National governments shut borders, but unusually we also see the work of a truly global authority in the World Health Organisation. Disease knows no borders, and in the end the literature of disease tends to show that success is best achieved by working together as widely as possible.