At some point during my first week of self-isolation—it was either the first, third or possibly the seventh day; time no longer has meaning, nor do calories—I turned to author Margaret Atwood in search of clarity. (Not the actual Margaret Atwood; she is not quarantined in my house but, rather, her work, most of which is).
Whenever it was, I had just finished streaming the 2011 movie Contagion, upon a mixed recommendation by the New York Times, which noted the movie was rising in the streaming charts because "it's proving to be an instructive worst-case scenario of our current freak-out," and that increasing numbers of people were paying to watch partly "to know how bad things could get."
This struck me as possibly one reason for dystopian fiction's rising popularity over the last few years. The New Yorker, in 2017, grumpily decreed the post-Trumpian rise in grim stories as a golden era for tales of the world-gone-wrong. But beyond scaring us in the here and now, dystopians also provide narrative distance, allowing us to ponder how we might avoid our own undoing. As Atwood, again, points out (this time in her book Moving Targets: Writing with Intent): "Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen to us if we don't pull up our socks."
I've taught a few dystopian literature classes and as the first week of COVID-19 isolation ticked toward the weekend (what day is it now?), began gravitating toward the bookshelf and away from the streaming queue (Outbreak, anyone?). Thus, I offer to you a short list of recommendations, which I intend as more than just a bleak book list: All have either interesting parallels or take-aways for our current crisis. These picks represent just a drop in the dystopian bucket and, no, I did not include The Plague by Albert Camus, The Stand by Stephen King or The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz*, but they all also fit the bill. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, King's 1978 novel's paperback and hardback sales have risen this year, and discussion of its parallels with the current COVID-19 pandemic have been robust enough that King himself weighed in on Twitter ("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," King tweeted on March 8, whenever that was).
Here are a few of my faves:
If the only Atwood dystopia you've encountered is The Handmaid's Tale, be sure to check out her eco-dystopian Maddaddam trilogy, which includes the novels Oryx and Crake; Year of the Flood; and MaddAddam. Yes, a plague wipes out humanity. But that's not all. Atwood also takes on environmental destruction, corporate greed and human nature. As Atwood said in an interview with SFR in 2009 when Year of the Flood published: "All of these books are really about human nature. How far can you stretch it before it's not human anymore? What are our essentials, what are our frills?" Good questions.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel opens with a performance of King Lear before shifting quickly to an epidemic that will, in a few short chapters, change life on Earth forever: "There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed…" Most of the book concerns 20 years later, and the members of the Traveling Symphony, who roam from area to area performing music and Shakespeare. The book, naturally, celebrates the enduring beauty of art, but also is a tightly plotted mystery. Prepare to be distracted and uplifted.
In The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker—admittedly a bit of young adult novel, but I enjoyed it—the Earth begins rotating strangely on its axis and time slows down. "The slowing" changes everything: People grow sick, food supplies wane, society begins to crumble and divide. The book is less alarming (at least tonally) than it sounds, however, because it's told through the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, who experiences and reflects upon the very human ways we try to navigate change when life becomes unfamiliar and scary.
* I have not actually read Koontz' 1981 novel and somehow doubt I will, but a Guardian article clued me into an online conspiracy that Koontz actually predicted this pandemic, as the novel apparently reference a killer virus called the "Wuhan-400." My understanding is that's where the similarities end.