Val Nolan’s essay explores how science fiction has shaped the cultural imagination of pandemics, and what science fiction teaches us about our expectations, experiences and reactions to dealing with COVID-19.
If the past year has taught us anything, it is that before we can effectively fashion the social willingness necessary to ensure people’s safety in a post-COVID-19 world, we need to imagine that world. Science fiction is the one literary genre with long-standing fascination for the unimaginable and, indeed, for “the next pandemic” and its implications. While it may not seem the most obvious or most immediately instrumentalised tool, science fiction offers active cultural knowledge which organises and systematises our expectations of the future both alongside and ahead of formal policymaking. Science fictional representations provide vivid imaginary accounts of environments, personal responses, and professional identities which can inspire the kind of public cooperation and ideological buy-in we have seen are necessary for establishing steps such as national lockdowns, vaccination uptake, track-and-trace, or the widespread use of smartphone apps as close contact detectors which plug us – cybernetic style – even further into the communications networks of late capitalism. All of which is to say, as Kim Stanley Robinson put it at the start of the pandemic, that science fiction writers ‘don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else’, but ‘if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen’ (Robinson 2020).
Part of science fiction’s cognitive value lies in how readily it enables dialogue with the unease generated by transformative occurrences, be they genetic engineered beings or alien invasions or the emergence of a novel coronavirus here on Earth. It is science fiction which offers the most useful aesthetic apparatus to help shape comprehensible narratives from the viral intrusion which has ‘severely complicated our lifeworld’ (Bricker 2015). The genre speaks the rhetorical and visual language of our contemporary moment like no other. Terms like ‘cytokine storm’ or ‘superspreader event’ evoke catastrophes straight out of a comic book. Eerily designed mask awareness posters seem to depict ‘aliens coming to devour you with a gaping mouthful of teeth’. Even the way we capitalise COVID-19 and, for that matter, the uneven typography of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 – serves to denature the pandemic, to make it strange in a way that evokes, of all things, the disconcerting LV-426 in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), a world which also held an insidious biological threat. Whereas much realist fiction is fundamentally conservative in nature, the best science fiction offers us, in Rob Latham’s words, ‘not blueprints for specific futures, but rather a radical openness to change itself, a willingness to shed old habits and expectations and embrace the new’ (Latham 2020). As long ago as 2011, even the United States Centres for Disease Control was using SF imagery, in their case the zombie metaphor, ‘to talk about disease outbreaks and how we should respond to them’ (Lynteris 2019). Their ‘Zombie Preparedness Campaign’ featured posters ‘showing a zombie peering through a window: “Don’t be a Zombie, be Prepared”. These were accompanied by “Zombie survival kits”, as well as a two-part graphic novel, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic’ (Silver 2011). The campaign was a major success, illustrating exactly the potential of speculative and popular media to imaginatively convey risks and associated schemas of conduct to the general public.
In that way, science fiction is uniquely equipped to envision the ‘charismatic mega-ideas’ which the COVID-19 pandemic asks us to internalise (Robinson 2020). It comprises a dynamic reservoir of assumptions and expectations present ‘both in casual conversation […] and in more formal capacities’ such as disaster preparedness exercises (Mirmalek 2020, 102). Through prose, graphic narratives, films, and TV shows, the genre has long informed us about likely responses to the kinds of revised social contract which now seem to await us, especially that pertaining to human health and enhanced (self-)surveillance. It does this through exaggerated allegories, a process traceable to SF’s originator, Mary Shelley, who herself reconnoitred the viral apocalypse subgenre in her 1826 novel The Last Man. Though Shelley is not quite Patient Zero for pandemic SF, modern science fiction continues to address the themes she emphasised. Take, for instance, the psychological impact of the half-deserted world in Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joseph Russo, 2019), a shared cultural moment prefiguring the miasma of loss, languishment, and constant apprehension which defines our socially distant present. The use of SF in this fashion may seem outlandish, maybe even frivolous to some critics, however one is put in mind of the observation in Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006) that ‘no matter how unlikely or far-fetched a possibility might be, one must always dig deeper’ (Brooks 2006). Science fiction is the genre which digs deeper, and our current ‘space of apocalyptic expectation’ is one which it has explored for nearly two centuries (Caduf 2015).
Thus, while ‘the virus is rewriting our imaginations,’ as Robinson (2020) declared, science fiction has been doing so since its inception. The genre has long acclimated us to circumstances now becoming our mundane reality, such as the images of rewilded landscapes (‘Goats take over empty Welsh streets during coronavirus lockdown!’) and exercises in ‘Edenic perdition’ (Lynteris 2019) which it has presented as the consequences of imagined viral realities. Canadians in particular seem to have done a good trade in this during the early twenty-first century. One thinks immediately of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), where a fictional swine flu has devastated the world, or of the global pandemic which dominates Margaret Atwood’s apocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy. In the United States, writers like Colson Whitehead have critiqued not just the typical tropes of the zombie narrative in his brilliant Zone One (2011) but, more importantly, has warned against any rush to normality before the pandemic is totally under control. Though Zone One’s protagonist exhibits what Svetlana Boym called ‘Reflective Nostalgia’ – he often recalls his childhood visits to New York but understands how that life is now gone forever – the government, ‘The American Phoenix’, practices literal ‘Restorative Nostalgia’ in their effort to control the end of the world (Boym 2001). It is in fact darkly hilarious to see, from the perspective of 2020/21, how Whitehead’s satire of restorative government sloganeering (“We Make Tomorrow!”, Whitehead 2011, 24) so accurately prefigured actual COVID-19 responses such as, on this side of the Atlantic, the UK government’s “Eat out to Help Out” campaign. It is perhaps no surprise in such an atmosphere that British science fiction has long taken a more cynical stance. Take, for instance, the post-plague response of Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space sequence, where some humans resort to extreme self-isolation inside hermetically sealed palanquins in order to stay safe from infection and death. Or consider how Emma Newman’s Planetfall series presents invasive health-monitoring apps as a facet of everyday life in a germane depiction of crisis communication, the perils of malinformation, and the (re)construction of human interaction in a digitally dependent age.
Though these examples are of course ‘dramatic rather than argumentative’, scrutinising them ‘can improve the reader’s imagination’ (Peels 2020, 201, 208). The manner by which science fiction allows us to envision alternate presents and potential futures is now more valuable than ever, capable of enhancing understanding of public health issues and perhaps even helping to manage potential responses (especially among younger groups, who are simultaneously the genre’s primary consumers and the most likely to be asymptomatic spreaders of COVID-19). The pandemic is therefore likely to further cement the aesthetic and affective registers of science fiction as ‘the realism of our time’ (Robinson 2020). The cultural values depicted in the genre’s pandemic and post-pandemic narratives have significant power to stimulate the imaginations of media consumers by encouraging expectations of the social relationships, material rewards, public approval, or group status associated with, for example, the wearing of facemasks or the crucial matter of vaccination (maybe even tackling instances of vaccine hesitancy, which conjure up not just the ready and alarming spread of Slavoj Žižek’s ‘ideological viruses’ alongside COVID-19, but also the ‘indoctrination viruses’ of Reynolds’s Chasm City, 2001). By presenting readers and viewers with relevant non-actual scenarios, science fiction exceeds the reach of realist writing in offering expectations of the future through dramatic plague visions and imaginings of their aftermaths. Understanding these perspectives may yet be crucial to the decisions to come, and it is science fiction – itself a viral mutation, itself a literary strain that bred the Gothic and the Romantic in the moist bodies of the modern industrial-scientific age – which is the creative industries’ best contribution to modelling the directions available to policymakers and individuals in their quest to understand what happens next…
Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York. Basic Books.
Bricker, Brett. 2015. ‘Review of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton’. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 48:3 (2015), 359.
Brooks, Max. 2006. World War Z. New York. Crown.
Caduf, Carlo. 2015. The Pandemic Perhaps: Dramatic Events in a Public Culture of Danger. Oakland, CA. University of California Press.
Latham, Rob. 2020. ‘Zones of Possibility: Science Fiction and the Coronavirus’, LA Review of Books, 27 May 2020. Accessed 16 September 2020 <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/zones-of-possibility-science-fiction-and-the-coronavirus/>.
Lynteris, Christos. 2019. Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary. London. Routledge.
Mirmalek, Zara. 2020. Making Time on Mars. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press.
Peels Rik. 2020. ‘How Literature Delivers Knowledge and Understanding, Illustrated by Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Wharton’s Summer’. British Journal of Aesthetics. 60:2.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. 2020. ‘The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations’. The New Yorker, 1 May 2020. Accessed 2 May 2019. <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future>.
Silver, Maggie. 2011. Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. Atlanta. Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2020. Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World. London. OR Books.
About the Author
Dr. Val Nolan lectures in genre fiction and creative writing at Aberystwyth University. He has published articles in Science Fiction Studies, Foundation, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Irish Studies Review, as well as fiction in Year’s Best Science Fiction, Best of British Science Fiction, Interzone, and the ‘Futures’ page of Nature.