ISSP Writer in Residence, Author and Historian
Science fiction is one of the means of representation of science in modern societies, in a way that is distinct from the representational modes of teaching, popularization, institutionalization, and politics. To some extent, it even reaches more people over longer periods of time than teaching or even popularization. To the depiction of science at work, science fiction adds the examination of (as yet) unrealized possibilities.
Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the sales of Albert Camus's La Peste and downloads of movies like Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) have skyrocketed. Similarly, historians of public health and the Spanish Flu epidemic have been solicited for their views, and have never been so avidly read.
The increase in downloads and sales was especially notable when the lockdowns began in March. As the data from Google Trends show below, interest declined after the first few weeks. I'm therefore inclined to think that works of imagination comforted many people looking to these stories to gain their bearings.
According to Esther Jones from Clark University, science fiction may foster resilience in young readers. The figure above suggests that many adults as well tried to use imaginative fiction to get through the stress of an unforeseen situation.
As I showed in another blog post, science fiction has been exploring the impact of epidemics for over a century. To illustrate this, I compiled some of the fiction that has dealt with infectious diseases since Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man (1826), using mainly the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.The result, in the figure below, shows the number of such works (novels, short stories, games, television series, movies, comics, etc.) by decade. Its most striking feature is the exponential increase during the last decade. The whole science fiction genre seems to have been warning us.
This breathtaking increase may be explained, in part, by a change in the kind of stories preferred both by authors and by readers. Formerly, science fiction had often appealed to catastrophes that resulted either from alien invasion or from nuclear war. As both have lost their lustre, atomic warfare has been replaced by pandemics, and the old-time mutants by the infected. Often, the infected person in such stories becomes a monstrous creature, such as a zombie or vampire. It's worth noting how zombie stories do not make the infected into mere victims requiring pity or care: they are a fearful menace to others. We may wonder whether the recent proliferation of epidemic themes playing on our fears actually assisted governments that incited their citizens to stay home by insisting on the dangers of Covid-19.
Be that as it may, the authors choosing to stage pandemics were surely responding to the growing visibility of quite real epidemics over the last two or three decades, from AIDS to Zika, along with SARS, avian and swine flu, and Ebola. It's also likely that many writers were paying attention to the many calls to arms about coming plagues since the century's beginning.
Science fiction authors do not claim the gift of prophecy, but they know that what is incalculable is not impossible. Pandemics can be foreseen since they have happened before and since nothing prevents them from recurring. However, they cannot be predicted precisely. The risk, however, had been escalating steadily, if only as a result of human encroachment on wilderness.
The first wave is nearly past. In some cases, it swept by in a few weeks and the fall was swift. In others, it turned into a longer, shallower, more nerve-racking swell that seemed to go on forever. In a number of countries, it may still be climbing or cresting.
But the time for drawing lessons is at hand. There will be reviews and analysis, perhaps even inquiries. One question that will likely be raised again and again is that of the resilience of our health systems, governments, and economies. Was there enough surge capacity in hospitals, back-up personnel for care and nursing homes, appropriate stockpiles of vital equipment and drugs for emergencies? Canada, like many other countries, appears to have been caught short by a contingency that had been abundantly discussed for years, if only because pandemics had been faced or feared several times since the turn of the century.
Better management procedures, improved government structures, and renewed funding may do much to improve systemic resilience. But we may also want to start thinking of human resilience to improve our willingness to envision the worst.
Artists articulate our darkest fears to let us exorcize them. Science fiction can foster psychological resilience, to help individuals cope with the unexpected. It may also help institutions and societies to face even the grimmest scenarios.
Science fictional works can defuse the initial shock of the new by offering a preliminary form of familiarity with a phenomenon we have never experienced in person. The avoidance of irrational panic may result in more intelligent forms of compliance. What is often neglected in analyses of top-down communication is how individual citizens will adopt, interpret, and broadcast their own versions of the best practices endorsed by government authorities. We need to consider not only what messages will be fashioned, but also how they will be received.
In Upheaval (2019), Jared Diamond argues that we can learn from history when we look at the right situations, but history alone is not enough. First, we need to remember what we know, as Pietro Greco recently lamented.
In fact, we need to reinforce two types of memory: the backward-looking memory of historical events and the forward-looking memory of possible futures, often but not solely found in science fiction. Perhaps because I know both, I feel that we need to focus both on historical knowledge and on science fictional scenarios in order to understand what may happen, based on historical and scientific precedents. In April, professor Anthony Seldon proposed the creation by the British government of a Department for the Future.
Can we imagine making both history and science fiction required topics in the university faculties teaching administrative skills? In both cases, the point would be to accustom the future leaders of our bureaucracies, private and public, to deal with situations outside of their personal experience.
Science fiction authors have already imagined post-pandemic worlds, usually ranging from the merely dystopian to post-apocalyptic zombie hunting grounds. Now that reality is focusing our attention on a narrower gamut of immediate possibilities, post-pandemic scenarios are already being sketched out. In the following months, they may provide us with new signposts for what is still to come.