This is not the apocalypse that one branch of science fiction has long predicted. Oh, some of us thought it was at first. A long-time friend of mine, a heck of a good science fiction writer, said to me in mid-February that this was The Stand. And I said, I don’t think so.
Then we proceeded to talk about it, and my friend said something that stuck with me. He said that smart viruses don’t kill their hosts in large numbers because that’s suicide for the virus. Only dumb viruses do that.
The Stand is about a dumb virus. A murderously dumb virus that, if my memory serves, kills ninety-nine out of a hundred people it comes into contact with and does so very fast.
That book stuck with me, because I read it when I was a 19-year-old waitress in a dying town. Spring allergy season that far north hit in June, so everyone was coughing and sneezing and sniffling. Normally that wouldn’t have bothered immortal teenage me, but as I read that opening section day after day on my lunch break, I got worried. I’d emerge from that small breakroom into the wider restaurant filled with people who wiped their noses and sneezed without covering their mouths. I had to bus their filthy dishes and touch their smudged coffee cups, and oh, man, did I get grossed out. And worried that indeed I would die of that plague.
By the middle of the book, the descriptions of illness vanished and with it, some of my paranoia. But I still vividly remember walking into that restaurant and listening to the sounds of allergy which my overactive imagination heard as the beginnings of Captain Tripp.
For maybe two days in the early weeks of this coronavirus, COVID-19 or whatever we settle on calling this thing, I flashed back to those horrid restaurant moments and wondered if I should apologize to my friend for doubting him.
Then I read the science and realized we were dealing with a different kind of virus entirely: a smart, sneaky virus, the kind that acts like a worthy enemy. It kills the vulnerable to make its point. It surprise-kills to keep us on our toes. It tortures many of its victims, but it allows so many others to act as its emissaries, to head out into the world carrying the contagion without even knowing what they have done.
Some people are seeing the worst of it, because they’re working in crowded hospitals, watching people who could have been saved die because there aren’t enough beds or ventilators or healthy health care workers to staunch the flow. For them, they’re living in a Stephen King nightmare.
Others are in a different kind of hell, unable to comfort their dying loved ones, or dying themselves. Or so sick that they can’t take care of themselves, and no one else can help either.
But for 80% of us, we’re getting mild versions or we’re symptom free. And we’ve been asked to stay at home, to venture out only when we need something, to wait patiently until the scientists (hero scientists! I love this part!) come up with a vaccine or some kind of treatment that will mitigate the horrors our friends and colleagues on the front lines are going through.
No science fiction writer whose plague fiction I have read (and I’ve read too many of these things for my taste) ever ever ever imagined that a pandemic would hit, and we would all have to stay separate, not touch each other, and wait until the virus was eradicated or at least contained.
In many ways this is better. We have our lives, most of us, and our homes, and our loved ones through FaceTime or Skype.
In some ways it’s worse, because the economic collapse envisioned by folks after a major apocalyptic event just might happen. Because staying at home is no way to run a society—for a year, anyway. If we’re looking at a few months, we’ll emerge, battered and bruised, but okay.
Mostly, though, it’s strangely quiet. The city I live in still has people on the streets, heading to their jobs (I live near the courthouse), and a few cars pass by and there’s a perpetual line at Starbucks. But otherwise, this could be Anywhere USA, which is unremarkable until you consider that I live in downtown Las Vegas. Which shouldn’t look like anywhere else on the planet.
You know, it’s logical that we would separate like this during a pandemic. Because disease spreads through touch. The science behind social distancing is sound. And some communities used that same science a hundred years ago during the 1919 Flu Epidemic.
Science fiction writers should have thought of this. We really should have.
But there’s no drama in living life quietly in our little homes. There’s domestic dramas, of course. But big dramas on a grand scale? Nope. So sf writers never considered this.
Nor did they think about the haste of the hero scientists around the world working round the clock as a group trying to come up with a solution before more people died.
Sure, in fiction, we had Doctor McCoy of Star Trek who could solve anything in an hour, and a few other miraculous cures that sprang up overnight, but they were always discovered by that single outlying scientist that no one listened to, the rogue scientist who knew better than everyone else.
I love the real-life scientist part of this year. I hope that it will get more coverage as time goes on, because that’s where the true heroism is.
Science will save us. And volunteers will (are) risking their lives to test these drugs and vaccines. And some of these folks will be unnamed in the history books, and that’s too bad. Because they’re on the front lines of this war as well.
If only we had real leadership somewhere in the world who could put this in context for us.
Because what the science is asking of us is to separate the battlefield from the homefront. We’re planting Victory Gardens and putting up blackout curtains, not because we’re going to be bombed by the Luftwaffe, but because if we stay home, we give our scientist heroes time to solve this problem.
And we help our medical heroes survive their battles on the frontlines, maybe help the civilians who got caught up in the virus’s early attacks, maybe save loved ones who wouldn’t normally get saved.
It was a failure of imagination on the part of the sf community to miss this obvious solution to a pandemic.
But it’s imagination that will help us survive on the home front. If we use our imagination and remember what we’re fighting for, we’ll get through this. And then we’ll have to apply our imagination—and our resources—to rebuilding, helping people who lost jobs and who are now in dire economic straits, comforting those who lost loved ones, and figure out how we can emerge from the rubble of this year stronger and healthier, with a better vision of the future than we’ve ever had before.