Coronavirus and Tales of Future Passed

By Dr. Wesley Britton

Very quickly after the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic began, I realized everything had changed for writers of futuristic fiction, especially all of us who have written post-apocalyptic stories. For one matter, before this pandemic, virtually everything we put into future-set stories was completely speculative. We based what we created on projections drawing from the best research we could find.  Now, we have a baseline to work from, drawing from international experience on virtually every level: medical, economic, political, religious, environmental, sociological, and very personal, certainly psychological.

Before COVID-19, there was a deep well of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature we can now consider for comparisons between fantasy and reality. Stephen King’s 1978 The Stand or Michael Crichton’s influential 1968 The Andromeda Strain were examples of a genre grammaticizing virus outbreaks resulting from alien incursions, scientific accidents, as well as deliberately released terrorist attacks or war gone amuck.

From Atomic Age giant monsters to wayward comets to 21st century walking dead, we got cautionary tales about what might happen if we don’t do this or don’t do that. We were warned that humanity could pay a heavy price for ecological neglect, scientific carelessness, or unawareness of what weaponized plagues could be released if we’re not carefully watching groups willing to put our planet at risk to reach their nefarious goals.

Of course, a much older tradition goes to The Book of Revelation where Armageddon is what God has had in mind all along. Distinguished authors who have dealt with fictional pandemics in particular include Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley, who published  The Last Man in 1826; Jack London’s 1912 The Scarlet Plague; Richard Matheson’s popular 1954 I Am Legend, and Gore Vidal’s 1978 Kalki.

I thought of all this when I watched the horror of coffins of unknown people being dumped into mass graves in New York.  That was something I had used as a fictional trope in my futuristic Return to Alpha (2017) on an earth impacted by climate change as well as waves of weaponized plagues released by Islamic terrorist groups. One question at the core of my novel, and many others by other writers, is how would humanity handle post-apocalyptic life? Few such novels in a very wide genre paint optimistic portraits. Humans tend to largely revert to barbarism, or at least primitive tribal communities often cut off from the rest of the world led by powerful men with women as slaves or near-slaves. Deadly competition dictates who gets what resources.  Frequently, our reliance on technology is reduced as in Machine Sickness: Eupocalypse Book 1 by Peri Dwyer Worrell where nearly every material on earth with any petroleum polymers from shoes to computers to transportation of all kinds breaks down.  One word sums up what many futurist writers envision: grim. One recent example of such unrelentingly dark forecasting is Maxwell Rudolf’s The Arkhe Principle: A post-apocalyptic technothriller (2017).

Now, we are going through an experience that changes everything.  Writers will now have to touch what COVID-19 did as it impacts all of human history like nothing since World War II.  To paint a believable future, the COVID-19 virus will have to get at least a passing mention in futuristic fiction as it will be a serious turning point in earth history.

Subscribers to Wes Britton’s newsletter will get an exclusive scene in the upcoming edition written for a post-apocalyptic short story featuring detective Mary Carpenter. It follows the ideas expressed in this “Coronavirus” essay describing how COVID-19 has affected earth – with a surprising twist at the end.

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