Zones of Possibility: Science Fiction and the Coronavirus

By Rob LathamMay 27, 2020

Zones of Possibility: Science Fiction and the Coronavirus
A NUMBER OF RECENT ESSAYS and articles have revisited classic literary texts that depict disease pandemics, scouring them for ideas and strategies that might prove useful in our current predicament. An essay in The Boston Review examines Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), which emerged out of Europe’s epochal encounter with the “Black Death,” for evidence of the breakdown in social bonds “as the fourteenth-century equivalent of social distancing altered and strained normal relations.” A piece by Leo Braudy, for LARB, considers what we might learn by studying Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which shows Londoners struggling to discern a pattern in the assaults of “an invisible antagonist.” And an op-ed in The New York Times argues that Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague brings home forcefully the sobering message that “there is no progress in history, there is no escape from our frailty. Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency.”

All three of these works deal with the bubonic plague, a devastating bacterial infection that causes the lymph nodes to swell, leading to cramping and seizures, bruising in the extremities, delirium, and — if left untreated — coma and death. Modern literary depictions of viral pandemics are somewhat rarer, which is odd considering that the Spanish flu of 1918, the most calamitous such crisis prior to the advent of COVID-19, killed some 50 million people worldwide. Katherine Anne Porter’s haunting 1939 novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider is probably the most significant work to emerge from that outbreak; as Elizabeth Outka has argued in a recent essay in The Paris Review, Porter — who almost died from the infection herself — “captures the emotional and physical jolts of a constantly shifting reality, and the inherent risks in failing to adjust quickly enough to a new paradigm.” Outka reads the rupture Porter depicts between a pre- and post-pandemic reality as a model for literary modernism itself, which was seeded with anxieties about decay and breakdown emanating not just from World War I but also from the contagion that followed it — an argument she develops further in her timely new book Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (2019).

Like many academic literary scholars, Outka draws a sharp contrast between “the narrative uncertainty […] fragmentation and plotlessness” purportedly characteristic of modernism and what she sees as the comforting banality of genre fiction, “where we already know the ending.” This invidious distinction invites readers to ignore the “predictable” catastrophes of science fiction in favor of the “corpse-haunted domestic landscape […], pervasive sense of living death, and […] delirious language” of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or the “sense of chaos and horror […] the terror of an agentless, hidden threat” in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (1919). Why this particular mutation of the apocalyptic imagination should be viewed as innately superior is never explained, nor does Outka consider the possibility that the texts she champions might profitably be seen, in their potent embrace of the prophetic imagination, as a kind of quasi-SF in their own right.

In any case, no form of literature has more boldly confronted the possibility of global crisis and catastrophe than SF has, from its outset in the 19th century. Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man is the quintessential tale of a worldwide pandemic — an outbreak of plague that gradually kills off the entire population, leaving at the end a single, lonely survivor. A recent essay on the novel in TLS shows how its conception emerged, in part, from a massive cholera outbreak that was exacerbated by incompetent public health measures, leading Shelley to conclude that “humanity is the author of its own disasters, even those that seem purely natural or beyond our control.” With its geographic sweep, attention to the interplay of science and politics, and vivid rendering of deserted cities and depopulated landscapes, The Last Man established a template that has been followed by most subsequent narratives of apocalyptic pandemics, in and outside the SF genre, from Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014).

Mandel’s novel, one of the few to deal explicitly with the effects of a deadly strain of flu, has received much attention of late for its prescient anticipation of our current crisis. Yet its depiction of the breakdown of American society into small-scale settlements struggling to maintain some semblance of civilized order in the wake of an epidemic that has wiped out much of the population is, in many ways, simply a rewrite of the finest treatment of the subject in modern SF, George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel Earth Abides. Stewart’s book was once highly celebrated, including winning the first International Fantasy Award (a prize later bestowed on such classics as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings [1954–’55]), but it has since fallen into obscurity, as evidenced by the fact that it has barely been mentioned in the current craze for pandemic fiction, with a PBS essay listing “8 Books to Read in the Time of the Coronavirus” and a brief piece in The San Francisco Chronicle being virtually the only exceptions. (There was also a recent blog post celebrating Earth Day that claims Earth Abides “prophesied the current coronavirus pandemic.”)

As the Chronicle article points out, Stewart was once a well-known name, a Northern California–based author who taught at UC Berkeley for many decades (he died in 1980). Stewart wrote several popular studies of California pioneer history, including Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party (1936; rev. 1960) and The California Trail: An Epic with Many Heroes (1962), which powerfully convey the splendors and perils of the natural environment, and the challenges it posed to human settlement and occupation.

In the 1940s, Stewart turned his hand to fiction, producing a pair of excellent novels about natural catastrophes — Storm (1941) and Fire (1948) — that built a template for all future such stories. Focusing on the institutions and personnel responsible for identifying and combating the threat — weather forecasters, transportation officials, forest rangers — the novels intercut breathless action sequences with scenes of intrepid experts conferring and strategizing, in a model now quite familiar to audiences of popular disaster movies. (Storm, a modest best seller, had other real-world influences: it spawned the practice of naming typhoons and hurricanes, and it inspired a popular song, “They Call the Wind Maria,” from the 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon.)

Yet the scale of the crisis in both novels is fairly limited, spanning the week-long cycles of a massive Pacific storm and a major wildfire, respectively. We watch men and women (mostly men) devising scenarios to contain the hazard or minimize its risk, coping with inevitable disruptions to those plans, and generally behaving like the competent professionals they are. The books are also filled with loving descriptions of Northern California scenery, from the snow-swept Sierras to the dense coniferous forests of the Napa Valley, and the suspense derives less from the vulnerability of the human characters than from the damage raging floods and runaway blazes might do to the landscape itself.

Yet Stewart was ahead of his time in his ecological perspective: the two novels show that the environmental transformations caused by extreme weather events, while they might destroy the habitats of certain plants and animals, also create opportunities for fresh life to emerge. The “Spitcat” fire in the later novel, though it devastates over 10,000 acres, killing scores of centuries-old trees and displacing a host of deer and rabbits, also clears the ground for new seedlings to take root and prosper. While the human characters anthropomorphize the storm and fire, seeing them as malign and implacable enemies, the author’s own perspective is detached and basically non-moral: in nature, there is only change, mysterious and, even in its most destructive aspects, strangely beautiful.

Earth Abides takes this removed point of view to its limits, depicting a cataclysm that lays waste not just to a few square miles of terrain or a handful of buildings but to civilized life itself. The book opens with an epigraph drawn from the Chemical and Engineering News for 1947: “If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation … it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.” It’s possible that Stewart originally planned a realistic treatment of the topic, along the lines of his previous novels, but then decided, as he extrapolated the consequences of widespread infection, to craft a more prophetic and ruinous scenario, with the social institutions geared to combat the emergency proving unequal to the challenge this time. (The 2011 film Contagion more closely follows the disaster template Stewart laid out in Storm and Fire, as government officials and medical experts race to contain a viral threat and develop a vaccine.) Whatever the specific evolution of the project, the result is one of the most compelling and evocative tales of global apocalypse in the SF canon.

Another way Earth Abides differs from Stewart’s earlier novels is its close focus on a single protagonist, Isherwood Williams, a graduate student in geography who returns from a solitary trip to the Sierras to find that a viral plague has wiped out most of humanity. (He surmises that a rattlesnake bite he suffered during the trip accounts for his own immunity to the disease.) We follow “Ish” as he comes to grips with the scale of the catastrophe, first through explorations of the Bay Area, then via a leisurely drive across country — a broad circuit through the South and Northeast, during which he encounters only a handful of traumatized survivors — before returning to his family home in the Berkeley hills. For a while his only companion is a stray dog he adopts on his wanderings (a plot point likely borrowed from Shelley’s The Last Man, whose lonesome hero also has a canine sidekick), but eventually he meets another survivor, a slightly older woman named Emma, with whom he establishes an enduring partnership.

Other survivors trickle into the area, and over time a thriving community sprouts up, cemented by informal bonds of affection and mutual dependency. Decades pass, children are born and mature. Eventually, two of the younger men fix up a jeep and depart on another cross-country trek, to see if other small enclaves might have flourished elsewhere. They return months later with a stranger named Charlie, who turns out to be an unscrupulous thug whose designs pose the first real threat to the group’s cohesion; worse, he harbors deadly diseases — STDs, typhoid fever — that further endanger the community. By unanimous vote of the elders, Charlie is sentenced to summary execution, an act of preventative violence that sees the first glimmerings of a state structure emerge.

A communal assembly, chaired by Ish, starts meeting regularly to plot the group’s future, an urgent necessity now that the last vestiges of the old civilization (e.g., water and sewage systems) have finally given out. Ish, the only true intellectual among them, can see far enough ahead to realize that a culture based on scavenging for canned goods and bullets is not sustainable long term. So he teaches the younger generation to make spears and bows for hunting and defense; by the time he dies at a very old age, he has witnessed a new form of community emerge, more akin in its views and practices to the native peoples who had first populated the country. Despite mourning the wealth of knowledge that has been lost forever, Ish consoles himself with the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes: “Men come and go. But earth abides.”

As Georges Dodds points out in a preceptive review of the novel, the character of Ish is likely based on the figure of “Ishi,” one of the last survivors of the Yahi tribe, who became the subject of a best-selling book by Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds, published in 1961. As Dodds observes:

Like Ishi, Ish emerges from the mountains to a new and incomprehensibly different world, the one going from the stone age to the modern industrialized age, the other doing the converse. Both have difficulty adapting at first, but both manage to come to live with their new circumstances. […] Like Ishi [who was acclaimed as “the last wild Indian”], Ish is called “the last American” by those around him, and like Ishi he teaches those around him the art of bow and arrow making.

Stewart would have known about Ishi because Kroeber’s husband, who “discovered” him in 1911, was the pioneering Berkeley anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, a longtime colleague of Stewart’s at the university, where Ishi became a local celebrity. The Kroebers were also the parents of Ursula K. Le Guin, whose own SF would adopt some of the indigenous perspectives and nature mysticism discernible in Stewart’s fiction. Indeed, Le Guin’s 1985 novel Always Coming Home, with its richly detailed ethnographic portrait of a hunter-gatherer community in post-apocalypse Northern California, could almost be a sequel to Earth Abides (as David Pringle pointed out in an excellent 1998 essay).

In relation to his own previous disaster stories, Earth Abides is less a continuation than a kind of structural reversal: rather than depicting a natural cataclysm withstood and largely averted through collective ingenuity and effort, including new technologies of storm tracking and fire mitigation, Earth Abides shows civilization buckling in the face of an epochal threat that wipes out the entire institutional basis of human knowledge and expertise (some of the book’s most resonant scenes involve Ish visiting the deserted university library, knowing that its vast archive will be useless to the new generations he is helping to raise). Interspersed amid the absorbing story of Ish and his people are italicized passages of exposition, in which the author, with serene objectivity, narrates the gradual breakdown of technical systems, the proliferation of wildlife in the absence of human society, and the fate of newly freed domestic animals:

For a while the flocks, too, will remain. […] [M]illions of sheep are not to be wiped out in a day, or in a month, and thousands of new-born lambs will be dropped. What are fifty or one hundred slain [by coyotes and mountain lions] out of millions? Yet not without reason, as symbol of a perishing people, men have said “sheep without a Shepherd.” In the end they will vanish. […] Thousands of years ago they accepted the protection of the shepherd and lost their agility and sense of independence. Now, when the shepherd has gone, they too must go.

These passages have the same haunting effect as recent videos and news stories chronicling the colonization, by a resurgent nature, of city streets emptied by social distancing, whether it be penguins cavorting in Cape Town or wild goats thronging in Wales.

Stewart does a superb job of extrapolating the disintegration of the industrial infrastructure over time, as well as the new ecological patterns that spell extinction for some species and sudden opportunities for others (for a time, Ish and Emma are plagued by a surge in the rat population sparked by the forsaken granaries and stores); however, he doesn’t actually depict the onset and progress of the crisis itself. This is, I think, the chief weakness of the novel: Ish heads to the mountains for a couple of weeks, spending much of the time delirious with fever from his snakebite, only to return to empty streets and a collapsed society. As he observes, “mankind seemed […] to have been removed rather neatly, with a minimum of disturbance.” Too neatly, I think, and much too swiftly to be plausible. While Ish does encounter the occasional corpse, most of them clustered around urban hospitals, it is not credible that a virus, even one of “unparalleled rapidity of spread, and fatality,” could make millions of people disappear virtually overnight.

This is perhaps the only comfort we can take from the scenario Stewart relates — that the rapid pace and mortality of his pandemic is simply not believable — since otherwise the book uneasily echoes the events we have all been living through for the past three months. According to Ish’s retrospective reconstruction, based on a scouring of old newspapers, a new strain of bug, “aided by airplane travel,” had “sprung up almost simultaneously in every center of civilization, outrunning all attempts at quarantine.” The virus likely “emerged from some animal reservoir of disease,” though a few alarmists thought it was “possibly […] a vindictive release, from some laboratory of bacteriological warfare.” Despite outbursts of religious fanaticism and scattered breakdowns in social order (a “certain amount of looting, particularly of liquor stores, was reported”), it appears that humankind went to its doom in a quite orderly fashion:

Civilization had retreated, but it had carried its wounded along, and had faced the foe. Doctors and nurses had stayed at their posts, and thousands more had enlisted as helpers. Whole areas of cities had been designated as hospital zones and points of concentration. All ordinary business had ceased, but food [production] was still handled on an emergency basis. […] [T]elephone services along with water, light, and power still remained in most cities. In order to avoid intolerable conditions which might lead to a total breakdown of morale, the authorities were enforcing strict regulations for immediate mass burials.

And this is pretty much all we hear about “the authorities”; mercifully, we are spared the final paroxysms of an overwhelmed and tottering national government.

Indeed, given the spectacle of hysterical rhetoric and incompetent management we’ve all been subjected to on a daily basis for weeks now, one wonders why stories of pandemic outbreak should be so eagerly sought out — prompting most major newspapers and magazines to publish “coronavirus reading lists” — and why they continue to afford such obvious readerly pleasures. According to an essay in The London Review of Books, sales of Camus’s The Plague swelled over 1,000 percent in March alone. Shouldn’t people huddling fearfully in their homes, surrounded by eerily empty streets, prefer to read happy tales full of gregarious socializing, rather than unsettling narratives about quarantines and social breakdown?

In his magisterial history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree (1986), Brian Aldiss coined the term “cozy catastrophe” to describe novels like Earth Abides (which he calls “the best and most memorable example of this subgenre”). “The essence of the cozy catastrophe,” says Aldiss, “is that the hero should have a pretty good time of it (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” While Ish never seeks out vestigial luxuries like the Savoy suite, preferring instead the familiar comforts of home, Aldiss’s description otherwise applies: he does find a wife fairly readily — luckily for him, a kind of nurturing earth mother — and he has his pick of abandoned vehicles (though he prefers a dependable station wagon to a stylish coupe).

For all its challenges, there is indeed something basically cozy about the post-apocalypse life Ish leads: it is improbably long and disease-free, lived in a comfortable home where the larder is always full (of canned goods that survive well beyond their sell-by dates), and there is no shortage of toilet paper. Moreover, it is much less hectic, lived largely off the clock, and in deeper connection with nature than during the high-industrial, pre-pandemic times. Most people Ish meets are decent and more or less rational, and those who aren’t, like Charlie, are swiftly disposed of. Above all, Stewart keeps the scenes of mass suffering and death that attended the outbreak safely offstage, and the other survivors rarely discuss them, instead referring vaguely to the “Great Disaster.” This is an experience of apocalypse far removed from the feral horrors of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).

Stewart was certainly familiar with such tales of grim survivalism, as evidenced by his book about the Donner Party, which doesn’t flinch from the grisliest details. His decision to tell a gentler story in Earth Abides, wherein the structures of civilization collapse but not civility itself, likely accounts for the novel’s popularity during the postwar decades, when so many tales of apocalypse featured the violence of atomic annihilation. By contrast, the world in Earth Abides ends not with a bang but with a muffled whimper, and out of the ruins emerges a strange new people untainted by “all that had gone to build civilization […] slavery and conquest and war and oppression.” In his final days, Ish — “the dying patriarch of a primitive tribe” — ponders “whether the new [society] would follow the course the old had followed,” concluding that “he did not know” but that “at last he was almost certain that he did not even desire that the cycle should be repeated.”

Reading the novel now in our coronaviral times, one can’t help but wonder what new social forms and cultural patterns will be spawned by our months of lockdown and behavioral adjustment. Professional prognosticators have forecast a wide range of possibilities, from the restructuring of market economies and consumer decision-making to the reconception of marriage and other intimate relationships. The prediction perhaps most in line with the transformations depicted in Stewart’s story is a renewed sense of environmental stewardship — a recognition, sparked by our collective vulnerability to an invisible germ, of the fragility of nature and, after weeks of being shut away from it, its abiding value.

What COVID-19 has taught us, above all, is the contingency of even our most durable and resilient systems and structures. For the first time in a long time, the future actually feels open, up for grabs. One potential response is despair and resignation, to adopt the melancholy perspective of Ish’s mentor, the preacher in Ecclesiastes, and conclude that “all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he hath taken under the sun?” But another, more fruitful option is to confront the sudden transformations wrought upon us in a bold and hopeful spirit, seeking to steer the eventual outcome in a favorable — or at least sustainable — direction, just as Ish ultimately does in Earth Abides.

And this is what science fiction as a genre has to offer us: 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. The best SF positions readers on the borderline between the familiar and the deeply strange and alien — in what Brooks Landon, a renowned SF scholar, has called the “zone of possibility.” COVID-19 has put us all in just such a zone today. The new world that emerges from this lockdown cocoon, this abrupt suspension of our habituated reality, will be forced upon us if we face it passively, but we can also work to shape it if we have the same courage and native wit as Ish and his tribe display.


Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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