Prescience is a precious element for fiction. This is particularly evident now when more content is being consumed than ever. This is the unusual case for Scottish fictionist Peter May. In 2005, May wrote a new book “set in a London, which was at the epicenter of a global pandemic. It was a city in total lockdown. A virus was claiming thousands of lives. The scenario I described wasn’t drawn from my imagination. It was based on detailed pandemic planning done by both the British and the Americans in the early 2000s.”
Publishers rejected the book then. “No one would publish it,” May wrote, said the publishers called it “unrealistic” and that “a lockdown could never happen in modern-day London.”
Fast forward 15 years and amid the COVID-19 crisis, a Twitter user asked May if he could write a book about the situation and May realized he already had. That book, “Lockdown: The Crime Thriller That Predicted a World in Quarantine” was released on digital last April 1 and will be released in print and audiobook on April 30. The book is not about the lockdown itself, but is actually a murder-mystery set in that world, where detective inspector Jack McNeill is racing to solve the murder of a child; he is racing because he has been infected by the same virus that has killed most of the world.
‘The Plague’ in Korea
Despite being fearful of them—or perhaps because of that—readers are fascinated by books about infectious diseases. In Korea, Albert Camus’ 1947 classic “The Plague” reinfected the bestseller list, selling thousands of copies after the COVID-19 news spread. Camus’ titular illness was believed to be based on the 19th century cholera outbreak in Oran, Algeria. People have been writing about epidemics as far back as 430 B.C. when Thucydides wrote about a plague in Athens.
More recently, writers have been turning to the idea of emerging viruses (new viruses, often mutating from animal viruses and yes, COVID-19 is an emerging virus from the novel coronavirus family) to scare readers, particularly in the realm of science fiction and horror.
Perhaps the most famous example of a book where the virus is actually the enemy is the late Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel “The Andromeda Strain,” where scientists in an isolated top-secret base have to fight a virus that actually mutates to defeat its foes. This virus is of extraterrestrial origin, having been recovered from a satellite that had fallen to Earth. Like many of the books that followed it, “The Andromeda Strain” featured a town of people dead from infection, an Army that wants to stop the virus by detonating a bomb and scientist protagonists who want to stop it by finding out more about it. “The Andromeda Strain” was made into a feature film in 1971 and a TV miniseries in 2008.
The most terrifying modern book about a virus that doesn’t involve vampires (Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”) or zombies (Max Brooks’ “World War Z”) is undoubtedly Stephen King’s 1978 masterpiece “The Stand.” A weaponized influenza strain called the “superflu” developed in an American lab escapes (sounds familiar?), killing 99.4 percent of the world population. This slightly supernatural but thoroughly frightening book ends in a literal rain of fire and involves the temptation of everyday people.
If it’s fear and fascination readers want, they can get much more of it in reading nonfiction writing about viruses—because this stuff really happened. Nobody has concentrated more or written more accessibly about infectious diseases than science writer Richard Preston, whose breakthrough, bestselling 1994 book about the Ebola virus, “The Hot Zone,” was reimagined as a six-episode miniseries by National Geographic starring Julianna Marguiles. The Philippines briefly appears in this book because the Macaque monkeys that were found to have the Reston Ebola strain virus in Reston, Virginia, in 1989 originally came from Philippine jungles and the Reston Ebola strain was actually found in monkeys in a Philippine facility as recent as 2015, according to the Department of Health.
Preston’s newest book, 2020’s “Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Viruses to Come,” deftly chronicles the unexpected return of Ebola in 2014 as the mutant strain A82V Makona variant and the efforts to contain it. In a haunting echo of the current world situation, Preston (who is the only nondoctor to receive an award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) presents a heartbreaking portrait of the front-liners who sacrificed their lives: “The virus exploits the best parts of human nature as a means of travel from one person to the next. In this sense the virus is a true monster.” He talks about the importance of isolation, self-quarantine (here referred to as “reverse quarantine”) and, of course, a lot of blood testing.
In a chilling chapter, Preston warns about the viruses still to come and how we remain unprepared for them. “A question has to be asked: If a [biohazard] level 4 emerging virus spread to a million people in North America,” he said. “Would the Americans, or in any continent, would hospitals be able to handle the patients and give them care? Would epidemiologists be able to trace and break the chains of transmission if a million people were infected?”
May predicted the “Lockdown” but he will presage a wave of lockdown literature that should be coming.
“When I originally wrote ‘Lockdown’ no one could identify with it. Now everyone can. It is our common experience,” May wrote last month. “And isn’t that what writers are meant to do—describe and explore the human condition, the world we experience as a human race?” INQ