pandemic

Plague Panel Thoughts

By Premee Mohamed
Apr 5, 2020 · 3,452 words · 13 minutes

20190819 142911

Art by Premee Mohamed.  

From the author: Pandemic thoughts about disasters and literature (and disaster literature) based on WiFiSciFi panels


Today I participated in a little virtual con that was super fun! (WiFiSciFi, organized by Anne Corlett—there's a link to the YouTube recordings on my Where To Find Me page on my website). 

I spent most of it with my mouth clamped firmly shut because I was too intimidated by the Extremely Famous And Prestigious Authors in my panel (and also because I wanted to hear them talk more than I wanted to talk), but I had some thoughts come up in my breakout session afterwards (also fun!) that I wanted to explore a little further.

They asked first: Do we think we're going to see a slew of biotech thrillers as a result of this?

I think we are, and that's unfortunate. Not just because it's going to promulgate the a) stupid and b) debunked idea that COVID-19 was bioengineered by Them Foreigners, but because the specific type of authors that will see this pandemic as an opportunity to make a quick buck are terrible writers. 

I also think, though, that whether we see books about the pandemic or not, we're going to have to incorporate it and its aftermath in everything written from now, if it's on set on this particular Earth. (Which isn't to say that those books should be written now. It's too soon. More on that in a sec.)

As I was discussing on a chat the other night: There are certainly fictional narratives set during the period of major events that aren't about the major events. Not every story and book set during 1939-1945 is a WWII book, of course. But I feel like if, in that example, WWII is not at least mentioned, there's kind of a glaring wrongness about the story that would shine directly into my eyes till I became frustrated and put it down. Like: Really? Really? You (say) lived in London during the Blitz and the war did not affect you, your friends, or your day-to-day life at all? Not bloody likely. (The main example we talked about was the P.G. Wodehouse books, which are set in a pleasant green terrarium in which the Great War is not even brought up in passing.)

"Well okay," you say, "but I'm fucking tired of having this thing be all I hear about all day every day in every fucking piece of media I look at. How am I supposed to write?"

I don't know but if I had to come up with a set of guidelines I might say:

  • Does the Big Event materially affect the setting, economy, or possessions of the characters? Is it going to be a huge, knock-the-reader-out-of-immersion moment if the characters are eating bananas but every banana in the whole world went extinct ten years before the book was set, and the reader knows that, because they were there, and cried at the livestream of the funeral for the last banana?
  • Did any of the characters participate in the Big Event? If so, how? It's a very different book if they casually mention that they were a nurse during this pandemic, versus if they were a database administrator who spent ten months working from home. 
  • Did any of the characters lose someone in the Big Event? If not, how realistic is that? Can you write a book about the Great War in which all the young men you know were somehow not drafted, or somehow all returned? How well will it sit with readers if characters were magically spared?
  • What will be unusual or memorable about the minutiae you intend to include? We're all on our last tit about toilet paper jokes; if you include something about that in the story, will it be the exact same thing as in 50,000 other books? What was special or unusual, scary or uplifting, about the ultra-specific way that your community, neighbourhood, or city responded?
  • Are you writing a story in which everything is 'normal' except that there was a little blip of Badness during the Big Event? Maybe hold off on that unless there's been enough time for the Big Event, and the After-Events, to be really over, analyzed, mitigated, and processed. You may think you can extrapolate for certain things, but not if there's not enough data. (Now. I'm talking about now. There isn't enough data yet on what's going to happen with, say, human rights, privacy, surveillance, labour laws, the healthcare system, research, markets, and capitalism in general on a worldwide basis, even if we can make sort of educated guesses that may look accurate in certain states or countries.)

Just speaking for me personally, I'd rather chew all my toes off right now than read a novel about this pandemic and its reactions (even the 'heartwarming,' 'community comes together,' 'old priest asks to give up his ventilator for young man' stories, thanks). I can't imagine feeling any differently five or ten years from now. And that's with minimal amounts of local deaths and hospitalizations. I'm just overloaded with it and the thought of fictionalizing even one minute of this fuckery makes me gag. So my view as both a reader and a writer is: Le Nope.

All the same, I do think some writers out there are going to handle it both interestingly and sensitively, and I admit I'm curious to see where those books shake out. Today, we talked about sci-fi writers specifically: How do we think genre will treat this? How do we think the litfic folks, particularly those who look down on genre, will treat this? 

And I ask this because I think that if publishing survives there will be an enormous crop of sci-fi tinged or alternate-history tinged litfic (that they will then refuse to shelve under sci-fi). I think it will be the litfic crowd that pivots first to fictionalizing this pandemic.

This is for a couple of reasons:

  1. Sci-fi writers will get hung up on research and won't publish their books first because they will either still be researching rather than writing when the first crop of the other books come out, or they will have died under a huge pile of books that fell on them.
  2. The way litfic and genre varies, I find (unscientifically, just based on the fact that my book spreadsheets inform me that I read about 80% non-genre fiction every year) is:
  • In genre fic, authors want characters to have A Goal, and the plot is about them trying to accomplish that goal; the conflict comes from the characters being repeatedly thwarted. Often that can be summed up in a single sentence that sounds like "If Princess Zyssxfxf can't beat her sister at the annual dragon race, she will be executed. But where can she find both a trainer and a dragon?"
  • In litfic, authors are far more comfortable with the entire plot being 'A character exists, and things happen to them.' (Look at 'The Secret History,' whose plot would not have altered a jot, pretty much, if the narrator hadn't showed up; for most of the bookhe does not do anything in the 'main' plotline except listen to stories of it after the fact. I love the book, don't get me wrong, but Richard is not driving the story by working towards a clearly stated goal.) This casual attitude towards goal-driven plot is going to be a boon for stories in which the antagonist is not even just a virus (without agency, without motivation, invisible) but social distancing, yearning for lost relationships, regrets for unspoken emotions or undelivered invitations, sudden revelations about the self, etc. Litfic is just going to take 'my ex-girlfriend that I'm still in love with from grad school' and replace it with a microbe. In genre fic, there's an if/then with high-consequence stakes ('If Case can't hack it, he'll be poisoned to absolute deth') whereas in litfic, you're probably fine ('I guess the real sickness was my nostalgia all along'). 

Related to that, the other thing I kept thinking about is how profoundly, terrifyingly, perhaps paralyzingly (depending on where you live) much this pandemic and its knock-on effects are not at all over, or even really begun.

I keep comparing this, in my head, to 'Shin Godzilla,' which is a movie I happen to love (maybe even more because I am a public servant, and I know exactly where I fall in the government hierarchy). Godzilla destroying your whole city is not very different from a virus destroying the whole world, as it turns out:

- What's happening?

- It doesn't look that dangerous

- We should be fine

- (Both of these statements are communicated throughout government and sometimes the public before the first question is answered accurately)

- Some experts are trying to tell us they think they know what it is!

- However, we are not convinced because they do not have data, only guesses.

- (These are educated guesses! The experts are not believed, however.)

- No action needs to be taken against the thing.

- The experts do not know enough to advise us.

- Another thing has happened!

- (In general it is the thing the experts said would happen, and for the reasons they said it would happen.)

- We need more data.

- We will not make decisions without more data.

- Once we have the data, other experts will need to look at the data.

- Then, any decisions based on the data must go through the correct chain of approval.

- (At this time, the experts are pointing out that they have been gathering, analyzing, and summarizing data since the first point. However, they have been deemed Not The Correct Experts, because they are not connected to the correct people who have approval to make decisions that will result in real-world changes.)

- (During most of the 'We need more data' period, Godzilla is smashing neighbourhoods.)

- The chain of approval is activated. Real change will happen!

- (Many, many people are now dead or irradiated.)

- There is no way, unfortunately, to get around the chain of approval.

- We are all scared to make a decision because if it's wrong, it will cause damage to various things, such as property, infrastructure, and our reputations.

- If we overreact, surely that would be just as bad as doing nothing!

- (Reminder that Godzilla is still smashing while people are backing away from making decisions.)

- All right, we have made decisions and deployed staff!

- The experts seem unhappy with our decisions. They wanted us to make different ones.

- (Several experts are now also smashed.)

- Action has been taken!

- We now need more data to see what resulted from the actions!

- After that, we can make more decisions!

- And repeat.

And I keep thinking... we, I mean the Plague Folk of April 4, 2020, here where I live, are squarely between 'The experts don't know enough to advise us!' and 'Another thing has happened'! Some precautions have been taken. But testing is still not widespread, people aren't staying inside because there are no government consequences to disobedience, there's no enforcement, and it's still spreading in the community. We have dozens of new cases every day. The government still fears for "the economy." We are still in the part of the curve as it becomes exponential and turns into that straight vertical line. 

A solid 80% of the decisions that I receive notifications about in my work email inbox cause me to say "Why are you being so unbelievably fucking obtuse, you stupid concrete-brained fuck" out loud.

The thing is, as I discussed in my breakout room today, disaster is something I am intimately acquainted with, perhaps even (if I dare to toot my own sackbut about it) an expert.

I used to work in a very, very dangerous job. (Well, several, but... this one was provably and regularly dangerous, like clockwork.) The plant was ancient, irregularly maintained, and there were accidents and incidents constantly, often with chemicals of which a very small quantity released as gas could be fatal.

I was part of Emergency Response staff and did dozens of drills, as well as responding to actual incidents, organizing shelter-in-place, doing plume monitoring and response, engineering knockdowns, coordinating evacuations and internal testing, and so on. We did drills for gas releases, train derailments, fires of several types, lightning strikes, building collapses, tornadoes, earthquakes, bombings (we were considered 'essential infrastructure' due to the train lines that passed through the site), floods, and a slew of other disasters natural and unnatural. 

And I knew, therefore, that there are three stages to every disaster, no matter what.

1a) Pre-disaster alert: not always a stage, or let's say not a guaranteed stage, but nice to have. You generally know when a tornado is coming, you don't get warning of a chemical release

1b) Pre-disaster response: communicate and perform pre-arranged mitigation activities to reduce loss of life, property, and future operational capacity. Mitigation to depend on amount of time and available resources based on the alert (for instance: six days of warning for a flood, two hours of warning for a tornado, zero warning for a forklift running into a piperack)

2) Disaster: ideally, all personnel are mitigating during this period. Evacuating or evacuated, sheltering in place, using breathing apparatus or oxygen, etc.

3) Post-disaster: evaluation of damage or loss, plans to clean up and reduce further safety risks (for example, demolishing a damaged structure so it can't collapse unexpectedly). 

And that's where I keep getting hung up and staring into the distance with a look that can be best described as Meaningful Discomfort. 

A tornado, you know where you stand. You know that after the wind stops and you get the all-clear, you go clean up debris, make neat piles for disposal, clear the roads, do first aid, make sure power and water are shut off, get people to the hospital, and rebuild. There is a period of work that results in An End, in which the damage from the tornado is repaired and no more work needs to be done, and everything functions as before.

A fire, you know where you stand. Hell, a fire's even better, because it can be fought. You know you can dump water on the fire, and then afterwards you make sure there's no hot spots or smoulder, you clear up the debris again, you get rid of the ash, you do air monitoring, and then you rebuild. 

For disasters that end, we, humans, have agency in the recovery. We are active participants in how bad things are, and how good of a job we do of cleanup and rebuilding.

We have frames of references for disasters that end. We know what to do after a disaster that ends.

In comparison, we have not even had the disaster hit for this pandemic, and I don't mean just the deaths and hospitalizations, I mean the entire structure on which various societies are built—how people work, how we travel and live, how we are paid for our labour, how we look after our vulnerable, what we fear, how we eat, how we allocate resources, who we hate. In our lifetimes, no single event, not a war, not a disease, not any natural disaster, has done so much to disrupt and perhaps destroy the things necessary to live in the world we understood. We have no frame for reference. There's nothing to compare it to. Every single thing that we value and rely on (say, to keep a roof over our heads and food in the fridge; to keep the lights on, to keep medicated) is collateral damage to this virus. 

We are still in 1a) here. The disaster has not hit. We have the warning, we are trying to mitigate, but we do not know what the disaster will look like, how we can adjust during it when it does hit, or what we can do afterwards. 

Part of me thinks: If it will always be with us, then there will be no post-disaster. There will be an ongoing disaster that will get worse and better and worse and better until there is a universally-available, effective vaccine, or until enough people have gotten it and died or become immune with a long-lasting immunity (and that, too, we do not know about). 

How do you write about something that lasts forever?

I keep thinking about 'The Stand,' in which, my memory tells me (though I last read it around the time I moved in here, 2009 or so) the Superflu (so American, omg) was over like a goddamn thunderclap. Ten or twelve days? Something like that? Maybe I am misremembering. Way too fast to react, to come up with a vaccine or a cure, too fast even for the healthcare system (again, if I recall correctly) to get overloaded, because people died within hours, at home, without ever making it to the hospital.

That is not the story we are getting here and it won't be one of the ones that gets written afterwards. We will emerge from this, if we emerge, into a radically new normal, I am sure of it (but not sure enough to write a novel about it).

No matter how desperately the old order clings to the things that have made it money till now, no matter how hungrily it clutches it and day after day makes decisions that kill the vulnerable and the poor and the old and the sick, no matter how much inertia it has, how much mass those systems have, there is simply no way that the scales are not going to tip with the rest of us on the other end of the scale now, piling onto it and shifting it not because we want to but because we have been thrown onto it by the very actions that the old order is taking. Soon they will realize they are the ones stacking the deck against themselves, and it will be too late. The battleship, to mix metaphors, will already be turning.

How will we write about that? Who will be the villains, who the heroes? What kind of people will we be afterwards? Is this something (like the Black Death, like the Holocaust, like Hiroshima) that fundamentally changes the very nature of everyone who is affected by it, participates in it, or witnesses what the bad players are doing during it?

Because, you guys, I have to say, the price gouging assholes and resellers and hoarders (to me) are the least of this, they are the bright sparkling sunlit surface over the horrific abyss of dark water we are going to see in coming days if the hospitals get overloaded, they will prove themselves to be the small-time bad players. I don't mean that the whole world will go full Mad Max, but there will be Immortan Joes, and they will be politicians and the economists and billionaires who advise them, and maybe we will not even, till all the corpses are counted and tested, know how deep that abyss can get.

How can you write about these people? How can you fictionalize them? It will be very easy to make the saints and heroes into novel characters. (I'm not going to try it; but it will be easy, I know.)

Anyway, I'd like to sum up with something meaningful, but I don't think I have it in me after this long primal scream of fear. I guess the main takeaway for me, when I re-read this later, is that humans do survive off stories. The cliche is true; it will always be true. It will never not be true. We will tell ourselves stories if no one else is around to tell them. We cannot stop ourselves from eating stories any more than we can stop ourselves from breathing oxygen. Hell, I have a novella coming out next year (maybe) that was about a plague that contributed to the 'end of the world' (cryptic, untreatable, transmission not well understood, exacerbated by various things, and unpredictably fatal). Now, there will be another story inside that story. And I will tell it to the best of my ability inside the frame in which it must sit.

I feel that even if traditional publishing, a tragically 'non-essential' business, is not bailed out of the coming disaster, stories will survive; and I firmly believe that storytellers will recover whatever we have lost during this, and will keep writing, will find a way to get stories out for people to eat.