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Covid-19: What to read during, after a pandemic

Given how popular the movie Contagion has become over the past few months, and the huge renewal of interest in the genre after the emergence of Covid-19, this Sunday column is dedicated to the huge volume of end-of-the-world fiction that’s out there.

Updated: Apr 19, 2020, 06:56 IST

By R Sukumar, Hindustan Times New Delhi

A woman reads as she sits in a window as another woman carries bags after shopping at an open market following the coronavirus disease outbreak (Covid-19) ahead of Greek Orthodox Easter in Athens, Greece, April 17, 2020. (Reuters photo)

For years, I used to write a column on graphic novels (Cult Fiction) for Mint Lounge. I’m also deeply into SFF — just the kind of thing you would expect of a person of my age (indeterminate but I feel as old as Methuselah) and background (engineer who went to college at a time when engineering colleges were more liberal-arts inclined than even top liberal arts colleges). But my real specialty is end-of-the-world books.

Given how popular the movie Contagion has become over the past few months, and the huge renewal of interest in the genre after the emergence of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), this Sunday column is dedicated to the huge volume of end-of-the-world fiction that’s out there.

You’d be surprised at just how many respected writers (Nevil Shute, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, to name a few) have written end-of-the-world books. You’d also be surprised at just how many excellent new writers also have (Emily St Mandel, Peter Heller, Cixin Liu).

In many of these books, the end of the world comes from a virus. In Stephen King’s The Stand, for instance, a virus called Captain Trips (also a nickname for Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia) kills 99% of the human race. Reacting to comparisons between Sars-CoV-2 and his fictional virus, King tweeted in early March: “No, coronavirus is not like The Stand. It’s not anywhere near as serious. It’s eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions.” Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain is another book about a virus (and has more science than The Stand); Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is built around a human-created pandemic.



In others, the end comes from a nuclear war. In Pat Frank’s underrated 1959 classic Alas, Babylon, Russia launches a full-scale nuclear attack on the US (the US eventually wins the war but at great cost to life and the economy). It’s understandable why a book written in 1959 would expect nuclear Armageddon to cause the end of the world. Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, On The Beach is again built around the premise that a nuclear war has destroyed most of the world’s population and that the fallout is gradually but surely killing the rest.

In still others — I am told these are particularly popular with survivalists in the US — the end of the world comes from a powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which takes out all electric networks (and also all electronics) leading to the end of the world.

And in some, a cosmic event results in the end of the world. In Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, the destruction of the moon causes a hard rain to fall on Earth, although, warned two years in advance, some of humanity is by then safety ensconced in arks in space — waiting for a distant future when return to Earth may be possible.

Of course, people who want a more non-fictional narrative of a pandemic could do worse than Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (which is perhaps among the earliest non-fiction novels). It is set in London in 1665, the year the plague hit what was then one of the world’s greatest cities.

The term end-of-the-world books is actually a misnomer, because none of these books really deals with a complete end-of-the-world scenario — either the tragedy is averted or the survivors find hope (at the end). Which is just as it should be.

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