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Saturday, March 13, 2021

Science Fiction Never Saw This Pandemic Coming • by Pete Wood

I’m still waiting for the flying cars. Let’s face it. Science fiction is entertaining, but not always prescient. Transporters and ray guns and time travel might come eventually, but I’m not holding my breath.

Some science fiction can’t come soon enough. We all want to journey into space, or have robots clean our homes, but nobody’s looking forward to the Apocalyptic stuff. I don’t want to go through a real alien invasion.

In 2020 the world had the chance to live an end-of-the-world scenario that’s been played out countless times in print, movies, and film. And I’ve been continually surprised by how wrong every writer turned out to be about a worldwide pandemic. 

I’m not an epidemiologist. For all I know, Anthony Fauci loves Outbreak and The Walking Dead. I dunno. Or maybe he got two chapters into The Stand and let out a blue streak and heaved it across the room in disgust. Who knows?

I’m a lawyer and I can’t watch lawyer or cop shows. They get it wrong time after time. Law and Order would have us believe that cases are fast-tracked for trial and that judges open court for one motion on one case and then adjourn for the day. No crowded dockets on television. In the TV world, prosecutors tackle one  case at a time, conduct all discussions about cases in person—never over the phone or email—and are highly confrontational with the other side. The truth is we all get along. It’s a job, y’all. I don’t get into fistfights with the D.A. if I see him at a local bar. But that’s not good television.

My favorite lawyer movie is My Cousin Vinny. Many of my colleagues agree. It gets a lot right. Vinny’s summary of contract law in the pool hall is spot-on and would have saved me a semester of law school.

But back to the pandemic. I don’t profess to be an expert on pandemic literature, but I have noticed a couple of things in fiction.

In the vast majority of fiction, the pandemic is unstoppable. The worldwide pandemic kills almost everone in works like Station Eleven and Earth Abides. People survive by going off the grid until the plague burns itself out.

Nobody takes any remedial measures. In Station Eleven, I can recall exactly one character wearing a face mask. There are no public service announcements, no talk of hygiene. The viruses in the Scarlet Plague, Earth Abides, and The Stand are able to cover vast distances and travel through walls.

Government does nothing in these books. Characters live in a libertarian nightmare where it’s every man for himself; an Ayn Rand utopia. No CDC, no local health departments. Just people trying to get the hell out of the city.

Government isn’t present or it’s incompetent or somehow responsible for the virus. In Stephen King’s The Stand, the government created Captain Trips and the only public policy is to cover it up. The military doesn’t do shit, except things like gunning down media who try to talk about the virus.

Don’t even get me started on 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later where Rage, a virus that shouldn’t have made it out of London, somehow takes over the entire British Isles and then eventually all of Europe. How the hell did that even happen? The infected get the disease in under a minute and become crazed zombies. Are zombies driving to other cities? Did Parliament fund a zombie relocation program?

Say what you want about the response of governments to COVID-19, but they at least had a response. Very simple rules for dealing with the virus have been broadcast constantly. Wash your hands, wear a mask, social distance. I can’t recall anything of that sort in fiction.

The pandemic in fiction rages out of control and overwhelms everybody. Don’t get me wrong. I love The Stand, Station Eleven, and Earth Abides. But the response of government in those works is highly unlikely and reality has proven me right.

No work of fiction anticipated  the deep political divide caused by the pandemic. People in Station Eleven or The Stand might not be doing much to counter things, but nobody in those books pretends that things are normal.

There are riots and traffic jams and street crime in fiction. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stuff. Not so in the real world. Oh, we had riots all right. Plenty of them. But they weren’t about the pandemic.

Who could have predicted that?

If I had read a book with the plot of the past year, I would have pulled a Fauci and tossed it across the room myself. Oh, come on! They’re not heading for the hills or escaping the city. They’re heading to the city to protest the election? Who the hell would do that?

Don’t go back in the haunted house. Stay out of the City!

I’d like to think that maybe the reason the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t like The Stand is because people have read that book. I’d like to think that we’re learning from the mistakes of characters in a Stephen King novel.

Maybe these great fictional apocalypses have taught us something. We didn’t get it wrong. When intelligent apes pop up, we won’t be stupid enough to enslave them as maids and hairdressers and janitors. Then maybe, just maybe their takeover won’t be quite so easy. I’d like to think that if the apes end up running the joint, they won’t flip up humanity and drag the Statue of Liberty up to the rocky beaches of New England. “We’re don’t want your huddled masses, you damned dirty humans!”

I like to think that if we do develop time travel and stupidly give it to the U.S. Congress to regulate, unlike Time Cop, we won’t put the sleaziest and stupidest two senators in a room and let them decide who’s going to control the technology. For the love of Isaac Asimov, I hope that if there is a one-line allocation in Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill for a multimillion-dollar grant to Cyberdyne Systems to fund the development of something called Skynet, I pray that we notice it.

I’m not holding my breath.


Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them


~brb said...

I dunno, Pete. Having spent the past 20 years selling the biggest and fastest fricking' supercomputers in the world to an assortment of .gov customers, "multimillion" seems kind of paltry. The entry level price tag for a state-of-tomorrow's-art supercomputer is at least a quarter-billion.

Pete Wood said...

An enticing offer to do it on the cheap is all part of the plan of Skynet, Colossus, and Pinky to take over the world.

Jason D. Wittman said...

I wonder if there's anything to learn from Poe's Masque of the Red Death?

Pete Wood said...

Great question, Jason. Seems like the characters in that story were kinda vapid and arrogant. So, the plague was a moral judgement of sorts.