ISSP Writer in Residence, Author and Historian
Pandemics are far from new in the history of science fiction. Which is why familiar novels such as The Stand (1978) by Stephen King and movies such as Contagion (2011) by Steven Soderbergh were sought as references when lockdowns began, as bewildered populations grasped for a way to understand an unexpected reality. Indeed, a number of other plague stories have been dusted off and discovered anew. The reasons for this will be worth discussing further in another post.
Epidemic themes in creative works do more than provide a baseline for comparison with current events. When we investigate their history, we find that artists approached them in a number of different ways that illuminate the view of infectious diseases by Western societies. The fear of collapse or outright extinction, the dread of their use in war, misgivings about the political exploitation of public alarm, and the anticipation of the next pandemic all feature in the stories they have inspired over time.
First, let me note that the theme is neither recent nor rare. Hundreds of novels, short stories, films, and games have made it a part of imaginative scenarios. A few years ago, I had started a story of my own in which a new epidemic disease surfaced in a future Europe. Now, I'll need to wait a few years before picking it up again.
What I wish to do here instead is offer an overview to both confirm the persistence of the theme and the variety of contexts, starting with a true pioneer. People often overlook that Mary Shelley penned, a few years after Frankenstein, a second science fiction novel. The Last Man (1826) describes a global pandemic that threatens to erase the whole of 21st-century humanity.
Indeed, the 19th century was scarred by multiple outbreaks of cholera, from India to Canada. The fear of a lethal epidemic underpins a famous tale by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842), as well as the short story "The Plague in Bergamo" (1882) by Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen. In recent weeks, men seem to have been more likely than women to die from Covid-19, but the 1881 story "Legend" by Lafcadio Hearn envisioned a plague that killed all men on Earth except one.
Starting in the 1890s, the acceptance of the germ theory of disease inspired a slew of stories imagining the weaponization of microbes. In the novel The Germ Growers (1892), Robert Potter, an Irish-Australian author, depicted the use of infectious bacteria by extraterrestrial beings wishing to conquer the Earth. In another work of the same vintage, The Azrael of Anarchy (1894), the protagonist unleashes a cholera epidemic to overthrow the British monarchy. With knowing irony, H. G. Wells ended The War of the Worlds (1897) with the contamination of Martian invaders by Earthly germs. In 1910, Jack London's short story "The Unparalleled Invasion" described a future where nations such as China were the victims of Western biological weapons.
Attempts to weaponize anthrax and glanders during World War I, along with the impact of the Spanish flu perhaps, led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, outlawing biological weapons. In spite of various programs to develop biological weapons during World War II, no country except Japan used them to any extent. The fear they induced, however, persisted and it helps us understand the conspiracy theories that posit that the novel coronavirus was designed as a bioweapon in a Wuhan laboratory.
By the middle of the 20th century, epidemics increasingly became a way to speak of contemporary horrors, such as the rising totalitarianism of both communist and fascist regimes. A 1937 play by Czech author Karel Čapek, Bílá nemoc (The White Disease or The White Plague) critiques the reaction of a fascist leader confronted by a new disease. A Czech film version was produced that same year, but the author's warning went unheard and Czechoslovakia was abandoned to Hitler the following year in Munich. After World War II, Albert Camus tackled in the novel La Peste (1947) and the play L'état de siège (1948) the reactions of society to the advent of uncontrollable plagues. In such works, more or less allegorical, plagues breed fear and political opportunities may take advantage to seize power, as seen in Hungary and elsewhere.
The 1957-1958 Asian flu pandemic was a concrete reminder that new infectious diseases could still plague humanity. The short story "Pandemic" (1962) by J. Franklin Bone described a pulmonary virus running rampant, though it could be fought with nicotine.
A new upsurge of interest followed the 1968-1969 Hong Kong flu pandemic. Distinct novels titled Pandemic were authored by Tom Ardies in 1973 and Geoffrey Simmons in 1980. One of the first Canadian efforts in this genre, William Heine's The Last Canadian (1974), depicted the decimation of North America by an airborne virus spread by the winds.
The breakthroughs in genetic engineering underlined by the Asilomar Conference next revived fears of bacteriological warfare in novels such as The Eyes of Darkness (1981) by Dean Koontz and The White Plague (1982) by Frank Herbert. A few years later, the AIDS epidemic laid bare the limits of modern medicine, inspiring Journals of the Plague Years (1988), science fiction writer Norman Spinrad's nod to Daniel Defoe's work on London's Great Plague of 1665.
The Great Recession has eclipsed to some extent the SARS outbreak (2003) and the H1N1 flu pandemic (2009), but the last couple of decades have seen a proliferation of creative works featuring imaginary epidemics. A popular boardgame, Pandemic, was launched in 2007. That same year, Québec novelist Karine Glorieux depicted, in Myriam Fontaine Québec 2035, the consequences of Ebola running rampant in Canada circa 2020... Movies such as Blindness (2008), Daybreakers (2010), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Contagion (2011), video games like Plague, Inc. (2012) and The Last of Us (2013), the play DEINDE (2012) by August Schulenburg, and the bestselling novel Station Eleven (2014) by Canadian Emily St. John Mandel could also be mentioned. Or the short novel Aquariums by Québec author J. D. Kurtness, published in 2019...
All of this is no more than a sampling. An exhaustive listing of every work along the same lines from the last few years would be overwhelming, but their very abundance is a reminder that many artists feared new viral dangers, imagined most often in the context of science fiction and techno-thrillers. On the face of it, this wasn't enough to raise everybody's awareness.