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Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

It’s become a common observation that the coronavirus outbreak makes it feel like we’re living in a dystopian novel right now. Even the name Covid-19 – the blunt two syllables, filled with hard consonants and a number at the end – is straight out of science fiction. It is unwelcome new territory for us, but humanity has been here before many times, and written about it. 

It is perhaps no great surprise that readers are returning to these works to try and make sense of strange new world we find ourselves in. Publishers and retailers are reporting a boost in sales for pandemic novels. In France, Albert Camus’s novel La Peste – better known to us as The Plague – has tripled its sales this year, as it has in Italy too.

The Plague is the great living work of pandemic fiction. It portrays a bubonic plague epidemic in the Algerian town of Oran, which is immediately quarantined. The book, published in 1947, is seen as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France: there is much discussion by the characters of how the plague cannot simply be accepted but must be faced and fought. 'On this earth there are pestilences and there are victims,' says one character, 'and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.'

But The Plague also works on a literal reading, and the quarantining of the town of Oran shows that epidemic-control tactics haven’t much changed in 75 years. The obliviousness of some people ('the town was inhabited by people asleep on their feet') can be seen across Europe and America today as governments enforce tighter and tighter shutdowns, and anyone self-isolating this month or stuck without a flight home can empathise with the Camus character who observed that 'being separated from a loved one was the greatest agony of that long period of exile.'

The Plague highlights one reason why pandemics appeal to writers. It’s an enemy, but not a human one, so it removes socio-political preconceptions about goodies and baddies and presents a level playing field for the writer to focus on how people respond to it. And such events through history have enabled writers to capture a moment in time, such as Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel A Journal of the Plague Year, which recounted life during the bubonic plague epidemic in London. Curiously, the pandemic to which coronavirus is being compared – the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 50 million people worldwide – is under-represented in literature, perhaps because everyone was writing war novels, which had more obviously dramatic potential.

But Defoe wasn’t the first writer to see the literary potential in an epidemic. Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was written shortly after the Black Death in 14th century Europe, and uses an epidemic as a framing device, consisting of stories told by ten people over ten days after they flee plague-stricken northern Italy. (Sound familiar?)

A pandemic is more central to the story of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, which was published in 1826 but is set in the 21st century. Amid political turmoil, a group of aristocrats, politicians, minor royals and hangers-on seek refuge from a pestilence that is spreading across the world, until one of them – spoiler alert! – becomes humanity’s only survivor, destined to roam the world alone, just as Frankenstein’s monster did at the end of Shelley’s most famous novel.

As well as a snapshot of history or a dramatic ending, a pandemic can also provide a novel with a pretty moreish premise, typically in the thriller genre. Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain is about an extraterrestrial micro-organism which – both terrifyingly and absurdly – doesn’t need a human host to spread. On publication, the New York Times called it 'compelling, memorably, superbly executed', and sure enough Crichton’s novel spread like, well, wildfire, inspiring a movie, a TV series and even a posthumous sequel.

A more artful approach is found in Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s Blindness, which although published just 25 years ago, has been fast-tracked to classic status. It depicts an unspecified time and place where people succumb to a contagious form of blindness that reduces the victim’s vision to 'a milky sea'. People suffering are rounded up and put in an asylum, where hierarchies of power develop. Blindness uses its epidemic as an allegory of society, where life is reduced to a squalid struggle for survival.

Saramago’s novel seems to be evidence of how close society is to collapse when disaster strikes. But a more optimistic reading – and we need those right now – is that it is really evidence of how robust society is, if it takes an impossible science fiction pandemic to bring it down.

These are some of the existing books about epidemics and pandemics, but what about the future? We can soon expect to see books inspired by the Covid-19 outbreak, either directly addressing it or more subtly disguised, most likely featuring draconian government powers, tragic personal stories, and the extraordinary surge of community spirit and altruism that we’ve witnessed during this pandemic. Dramatic times have always inspired great fiction, which will be one small consolation when we come through this.

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