Pandemics and Speculative Fiction

Lillian Longendorfer

Epidemics and pandemics have challenged medical science and influenced the course of history.  Apocalyptic plagues have also been recurrent themes in science fiction.  As a doctor and also a science fiction writer, I have been watching the Covid-19 pandemic with a double perspective.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire after the bubonic plague of 541AD; the Black Death plague in the 14th century that devastated Europe (and also ended serfdom and launched technological advancements to replace the decreased labor force); and the Small Pox plague in the Americas during the 16th century that caused the collapse of the Incas and the Aztecs – all  have all influenced the way the world functioned.

Certainly, the 20th and the 21st centuries have not been immune to pandemics.  The influenza (Spanish) virus in 1918 that took my father’s mother and devastated the young men on the battlefields of Germany and France during WWI as well as the HIV virus and the H1N1 Swine flue in 2009 have all had an effect on the world today.  One effect of these specific pandemics has been to advance medical research and the development of novel vaccines and medications designed to prevent and treat viral diseases.

Pandemics have also influenced the world of literature.  Apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopic literature have featured microbes, real, man-made or alien, as the background for exploring the effects of dismantling scientific, religious, economic and governmental institutions.  These microbes have also been utilized to examine man’s struggles to survive extraordinary, life threatening circumstances.

An example of this type of speculative fiction is Mary Shelly’s The Last Man where she examines the pitfalls of human behavior (greed, pride and selfishness) and the machinations of politics and philosophy.  Other examples include Dan Brown’s Inferno where a geneticist engineers a virus that affects man’s ability to reproduce and attempts to introduce it into the water supply to prevent an impending world-wide over population and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain where a retrieved military satellite brings back an extraterrestrial microorganism intended for biowarfare.

In science fiction, man’s innate desire to survive, either through scientific medical innovations or through the ability to adapt in the face of adversity, often portends a respectful and moral outcome. Today, with the Corona virus pandemic upon us and with the steps currently being taken to mitigate its effects, we live with the promise that a vaccine to eradicate it and halt its devastating effects looms just ahead.  History will record how well or how poorly humanity responded to the presence of this virus around the world.  Hopefully, it will say that we overcame this pandemic as perceptively and as heroically as the fictional characters in the pages of speculative fiction did.

 Although the traditional Milford Readers and Writers Festival has been canceled for this year due to the pandemic, it will be replaced by four Facebook-Live events on September 11, 12, and 13. The science-fiction conversation will take place on September 13th from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm. The program – “Science Fiction Today and the Milford Connection” – will feature Gordon Van Gelder, a recognized editor of science fiction and award-winning writer Samuel R. Delany. Both also attended an earlier Milford Writers Conference, the acclaimed gathering of science fiction writers, at the time of its founding in the 1950s.