Pandemics in Fiction - Headstuff

Literature In The Time Of Corona: Pandemics In Fiction 

Already finished The Stand and World War Z and looking for more books to occupy your time during lockdown? Take a look at some lesser-known novels about plague outbreaks that might just help you pass the time – or push you further into existential despair.


A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) – Daniel Defoe


Defoe’s novel is a fictional account of the bubonic plague epidemic which hit London in 1655. Like much of Defoe’s other writing, such as Robinson Crusoe (1719), it is characterised by incredible attention to detail. In the novel the narrator moves from house to house, recording the harrowing observations of the plague on every day life along the way. A Journal of the Plague Year is in fact noted for being more detailed than Samuel Pepys’s real-life plague diaries. 


Ormond; Or, The Secret Witness (1799) – Charles Brockden Brown



Set during the historical devastating yellow fever outbreak of 1793 which afflicted Philadelphia’s population. This was an event which the author Charles Brockden Brown lived through and lost his best friend to. Ormond is the gothic story of Constantia Dudley, a young woman who struggles to keep her family housed and fed when her father loses his business during the outbreak. Some of the gory details regarding the effects of the plague might disturb even desensitised modern readers!


The Last Man (1826)  – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


Shelley is best known for inventing science fiction with her debut novel Frankenstein (1818). She also wrote a post-apocalyptic novel which highly influenced plague narratives. Not too shabby! Set at the end of the twenty-first century, it’s an epistolary narrative from the point of view of a lone man, Lionel Verney, who has watched the demise of the human race. Characters encountered along the way are based on people from Shelley’s social circle such as Percy Bysshe and Byron. 


Earth Abides (1949) – George R. Stewart 


After recovering from a mysterious illness that kills the majority of the population of the United States, Isherwood Wilson sets off on a trip across America to discover who else is out there, eventually attempting to start society anew. Stewart’s novel has not aged well in terms of gender and racial politics, but remains interesting as a blueprint for post-apocalyptic novels of the twentieth century. It is an interesting examination of US post-war anxieties, many of which can be traced to this day.  


Slapstick! Or, Lonesome No More (1973) – Kurt Vonnegut


Like the rest of the Vonnegut canon, Slapstick is a seriously black comedy. Set in a New York in which the residents live in isolation, it is narrated in flashbacks by the now defunct king of Manhattan. Among other catastrophes is a national experiment gone awry: China has begun shrinking its citizens in order to save on resources. However, they eventually shrink to the size that they become inhaled by regular-sized humans, leading to a plague that racks the western world…


Blindness (Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira in the original Portuguese) (1995) – José Saramago 


Saramago’s novel details a distressing outbreak in an unnamed city which strips people of their sight. The action follows a now-blind doctor and his wife who, mysteriously, is still able to see. In response to the outbreak authorities round up those affected and quarantine them. Things quickly turn chaotic as the blind are callously treated by those in charge. Blindness is perhaps the most misanthropic book on this list which is probably saying something – approach with caution! 


The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – Kim Stanley Robinson


Kim Stanley Robinson may be better known for looking into the future in science fiction such as the Mars trilogy (1993-6) and Aurora (2015), but in The Years of Rice and Salt Robinson looks at the past, speculating what would have happened if, instead of a third of Europe being killed by the bubonic plague, 99 per cent of the population was killed off. Split into ten parts, it tells the story of a western world being built throughout the ages with considerably different influences. 


Oryx and Crake (2003) – Margaret Atwood 


Part one of Atwood’s Madaddam trilogy (2003-13), Oryx and Crake is from the point of view of a character suffering from amnesia, named Snowman, who may be the last human left alive. Told in flashback, we begin to learn more about Snowman’s of his life pre-apocalypse. Back then, he worked alongside his best friend, Crake, at a genetics laboratory in which risky experiments were being run on both animals and humans. Surely nothing could go wrong there.


Plague Year (2007) – Jeff Carlson 


Another first part of a trilogy, Carlson’s thriller imagines a world in which nanotechnology has gotten out of control, leading to a “machine plague” that kills any mammal it infects. The plague, however, cannot survive at high altitudes. As a result, surviving humans have escaped to places such as the Colorado Rockies, to eke out an existence above 10,000 feet. Meanwhile, astronauts who are stuck out on the International Space Station try and find a solution to the pandemic. 


Sleep Donation (2014) – Karen Russell


A sleepless epidemic starts sweeping the United States, with individuals remaining awake for weeks on end until they tragically expire. The only way to counter their insomnia is with a transfusion of sleep from a healthy donor. The Slumber Corps are an organisation set up to run the transfusion process. When one of their recruiters, Trish, discovers the first universal donor – someone whose sleep could reverse anyone’s insomnia – it turns out to be an infant.  


The Last Children of Tokyo (Kentoshi in the original Japanese) (2018) – Yoko Tawada


Falling somewhat outside the regular scope of a pandemic, in Tawada’s experimental work, each generation in Japan is mysteriously born with progressively weaker immune systems. While older men and women regularly reach 100 still hale and hearty, younger generations struggle to live beyond childhood. The Last Children of Tokyo follows the plight of Yoshiro, an elderly man who is the sole carer of his great-grandson, Mumei, and will most likely outlive him too.