How do you deal with a pandemic and rapidly changing, uncertain circumstances? How do you handle the fire hose of information and misinformation coming from all angles? Some people turn to books, which is why I put together this list of six novels about plagues and viral outbreaks.
As I’m writing this, the United States is feeling the sting of the 2019 novel corona virus, COVID-19. Public schools have shut down. Universities have moved to online classes. Cities are issuing shelter-in-place orders. Tests are nearly impossible to obtain in many places. Hospitals are running out of supplies.
Reading novels about pandemics, natural disasters, or other tragedies in the midst of a similar event may feel too real, too raw, or too upsetting. But these kinds of books can also help us process what’s happening and make sense of the unfathomable.
In much the same way preparing for emergencies by planning ahead and doing drills helps us react quickly and calmly when a true emergency strikes, reading books about weird plagues and viral outbreaks in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic can help us plan, prepare, and react calmly.
(Of course, disaster and disease novels can have the opposite effect, too. They can make us anxious, panicky, or worse. If that’s you, it’s okay to read whatever makes you feel better.)
Most of the books I recommend have hopeful—if not happy—endings, which can also help when things feel chaotic and difficult.
Let me know in the comments, or over on Twitter, what your favorite novel or comic about a plague or viral outbreak is!
Six novels about plagues and viral outbreaks
A mysterious virus kills every mammal with a Y chromosome. Human, animal, they’re all dead. Except for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. As the last man alive in a world left devastated by the loss of half its population, Yorick is pursued by scientists who want to study him and bands of “Amazons” who think the world is better off without men.
Like many post-apocalyptic stories, Y: The Last Man explores a “what if” future while commenting on the present in significant ways. Far from being a story about how women can’t survive without men, Y is a story of how women can and do thrive without men. It’s also a story about one man—now a metaphor for all men—being forced to confront his fragile masculinity and, pardon my french, grow the fuck up, all while chaos swirls around him.
In a sleepy California college town, students go to class and maybe fall in love, a single dad does his best to take care of his daughters, and a couple struggling with new parenthood attempt to navigate their fraught relationship when a mysterious illness descends. The infected fall asleep, and nothing can wake them. They become dehydrated and malnourished without hospital care.
The disease—and panic—spreads, and much like we’re seeing with this current pandemic, characters react in different ways. The Dreamers isn’t a pandemic novel, as the virus is contained to this one small town. But Katharine Thompson Walker is a master at eliminating the distance between character and reader. It feels just as if we’re experiencing the illness along with the town.
Woven throughout the viral outbreak is Walker’s exploration of the mysteries of sleep and dreams, which adds another few layers to this book. (I also loved her debut novel, The Age of Miracles, which is a post-apocalyptic climate disaster novel told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl.)
The three books in the MaddAdam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, chronicle the rise of genetic engineering and the downfall of humanity because of a mysterious plague. Spoiler alert: It all goes back to the hubris of one man and his cult leader status.
I first read Oryx and Crake over a decade ago. I’m still shocked at how often I see an article about “groundbreaking science” that echoes Atwood’s predictions. Take lab-grown meat for example. Written with ruthless precision and prescient imagination, the MaddAddam trilogy will have you rethinking the wisdom of genetic engineering and whether or not humanity even deserves to continue on as a species.
Unlike the other novels on this list, Wanderers tackles an epidemic from two sides: those affected and those working to stem the tide and contain the disease. The novel is told through multiple perspectives, including a disgraced CDC epidemiologist and the sister of this new plague’s first victim.
Of course, it’s not as simple as one unknown disease; there are two new diseases causing havoc across the United States. Wanderers weaves disparate threads together. It reveals how interconnected systems—including political systems—can fail at any point and lead to an uncontrolled outbreak. That makes it incredibly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you read Amazon or Goodreads reviews for this book, you may see a lot of one- and two-star reviews that label the book overly “political.” But as we are seeing, politics are inseparable from how we react to and deal with epidemics and pandemics. Once again, Chuck Wendig exposes the flaws in the system and reveals how politics ignores science, putting citizens in peril.
Released on February 4, Clare Beams’s debut novel hit shelves just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Illness Lesson is more akin to The Dreamers in tone and scope: it deals with a localized, mysterious illness in a progressive 19th century school for girls. When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the school, the students begin exhibiting strange symptoms.
Beams explores the oft-overlooked topic of women’s illnesses and how the medical establishment and society ignore women’s symptoms and pain. Beams’s writing is vivid and haunting, and comparisons to Kelly Link and Karen Russell are apt.
Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant debut novel can be read as a terrifyingly possible blueprint for the future after COVID-19. In Station Eleven, a flu pandemic wipes out huge swathes of humanity and causes societal collapse. No more power, no more running vehicles, no more industry, no more government, no more medicine.
Those who survive are forced into a pre-industrial way of life where resources are scarce. But I’m not recommending this novel because I think things are hopeless for us. On the contrary, Station Eleven shows us how people can thrive even in dire circumstances and find ways to rebuild. This book ends on a hopeful note, and also shows how important art is, especially in times of crisis.
I’ve collected these six novels, along with a few others, into a handy list over at Bookshop.org.
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