Reading List: Plague Edition

Doooooooooooomed?

Hello!

I’ve been working on getting back into a routine after finishing The Book: I’ve got a couple of freelance projects that I’ve been working on, but it’s been nice to take a relatively quiet couple of days to catch up on some reading and other things.

I’ve been saving up a bunch of links and reviews for this newsletter edition, but I wanted to talk a bit about the pandemic, and particularly how it’s going to impact fandom.


COVID-19

Image: photoheuristic.info

The news of the last couple of weeks has been inundated with news about the Coronavirus, or COVID-19. I’m not a doctor or infectious disease expert, but it is a field that I followed for a long time as a journalist. It’s a pretty scary thing, like something out of a post-apocalyptic novel, one of the ones where whatever disease the author came up with kills 99.9% of the population — The Stand, Station Eleven, Feed, I Am Legend, The Passage, The Fireman … etc. COVID-19 certainly isn’t as bad as those fictional pandemics, but with a fatality rate of around 2 % (ish), that adds up when you scale up to a global population. And it’s scarier than something like the West African Ebola outbreak, because you don’t actually have to touch an infected patient’s bodily fluids to get infected.

Nor is this "the same thing as the flu”, or whatever nonsense is floating around on social media. Denise Grady at The New York Times has a good overview of the pandemic (she’s been in their science section for more than two decades) and talks about some of the misinformation that’s going around. There’s been a lot of talk about hygiene, but right now, there’s more need than ever to practice information hygiene as well: track news to its source, and gather it from people who know what they’re talking about or have expertise in the subject.

I think one of the things that makes this scarier for everyone is the uncertainty about it. China didn’t do a good job in the early days of the epidemic, but they’re done some heavy lifting to try and get it contained — and it seems to be working, to the point where they say that they’ve closed down all of the hospitals that they constructed in Wuhan. Other countries have taken extraordinary measures: Italy has locked down completely, for example. The US has had a chaotic response to the illness: there’s been failures at pretty much every level of government, from the inability to prepare for these types of pandemics (it’s always an if, not when), the failure to test or contain people at risk, and even the failure to provide timely information (governmental officials have to go through Vice President Pence’s office), while President Trump’s response has been reprehensible and irresponsible. That chaos allows for mis- and dis-information to spread: I’ve seen a lot of people dismissing it as everything from a hoax to the media playing it up because there’s no impeachment news to people parroting right-wing talking points about the flu and blah blah blah.

Essentially, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and like it or not, we’re going to have to contend with a major illness spreading throughout the country and world. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet.

With that in mind, here are some things that I’d recommend as a journalist / health-conscious person. Check with your doctor for specific recommendations based on your health.

  • Wash your hands. Soap is better than hand sanitizer. (If any good comes out of this pandemic, it’s that people will start doing this more often.)

  • Don’t get news from Facebook / Twitter / Social Media from that one friend who posts hourly updates. Don’t listen to commenters who are spouting off talking points X, Y, and Z. Don’t get your news from places that are simply reacting to public outcry / concern or reblogging it.

  • Do see what major health organizations are saying about the pandemic. The CDC and WHO are good places to start — their scientists are experienced and have the knowledge and expertise to deal with this sort of thing. More helpfully, I think, go to your state and city’s health divisions (here’s the one for Vermont, which just identified its first case.)

  • Limit your travel to high-risk areas and places where there are lots of people, which leads me to my next thing.


COVID-19 and Fandom

This pandemic comes at a pretty bad time for the larger SF/F fan community. Convention season is upon us, and already, we’ve seen major fan-related events cancel. Over on Tor.com, I’ve rounded up a long list that tracks which ones are canceled, postponed, and are on schedule. We’ll be updating it as we get more news, and if you are going to a con, check with them directly before you hit the road.

Authors are also canceling events: Charles Stross noted that he’s pulling out of events and signings, Eric Flint is skipping the Writers of the Future award ceremony, Ken Liu is skipping an event, and I’m guessing that authors like John Scalzi and N.K. Jemisin will drop some events on the schedule for the next month, as well as others.

The current buzzword is “Social Distancing,” a good thing to practice these days. With conventions, that’s a lot harder to do: there’s always the joke about getting “Con-Flu”, but with thousands of people clustered together in rooms and in face-to-face situations, cons are prime places for disease transmission. Not only that, but people then go back home, and potentially spread it around to family, friends, co-workers, etc.

What’s hilarious is that I’ve seen a handful of fans who complain up and down about how they contract Con Flu every time they go to a convention complain that the reaction here is overblown. Sure.

Personally, I’d already opted to pull out of next week’s ACE Comic Con in Boston before they canceled, and I’m definitely going to be reevaluating what events I go to. Cons are hard, because you’re interacting with a lot of people — you have to stand close to one another to make yourself heard over the noise of the con floor, you might shake hands or touch people to take pictures, and we in the 501st have a lot of props that people interact with. If you are in the 501st, or are a cosplayer, it’s definitely something to think about: if you yourself are infected, or come into contact with someone, you become an inadvertent transmission point.

SFWA president Mary Robinette Kowal has a good look at what’s going on on the organizational side of these things: organizations don’t want their conferences to turn into hot zones, but they’re caught in a hard place, especially if they have events that are coming up. They can opt to close down preemptively, but will lose out on thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the economic losses that come with thousands of attendees. The reason you’re seeing many try and avoid shutting down now is likely because of insurance reasons, because they can’t afford to give up refunds. That’s why we’ve seen cons like Emerald City and Ace shut down after their local governments declared states of emergencies: it helps let them off the hook a bit.

Cons are fun and all, but disease prevention is really a community effort: everyone has a part to play, and staying home might be the best course of action. At the very least, maybe it’s a good time to stay at home with a book, or to catch up on that show that you’ve been meaning to watch?


Pandemics and SF

Science Fiction has long been interested in the types of catastrophes that could destroy or fundamentally alter human civilization as we know it. Plague fiction has existed for almost as long as the genre has existed, with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. It makes sense: the discovery of germs and viruses came with the onset of the Industrial and scientific revolutions, which completely altered how we approached public health.

Pandemics are useful plot devices for authors who want to destroy humanity. They’re not as destructive as an asteroid or other physical disaster — they’re good at essentially erasing people from the face of the Earth.

While there area some good books about the nature of how a virus spreads and the efforts that scientists undertake to contain it — look no further than Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, or Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (nonfiction, but often compared to a novel) — plagues are really good at poking people into their baser instincts, which is where they really become useful literature.

Look at books like Stephen King’s The Stand or Joe Hill’s The Fireman, both of which utilize plagues that wipe out significant parts of the human population, and leaving the survivors to rebuild society. Those reconstructions generally aren’t pretty: bands of survivors who set up authoritarian-styled encampments or gated communities that are more than willing to turn anyone who steps out of line out into the wilderness.

It feels like plagues or super-flus have become a big thing in the literary end of SF, particularly with novels like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Edan Lepucki’s California, all of which look at the decline of civilization and what its aftermath might look like. In each case, there are some slightly different takes. All three agree that the situations are ripe for authoritarian-minded strong men to come in and take over a community with the stated interest of saving people, but who are really doing it for their own edification. Mandel’s take is probably the most interesting of those three: she specifically looks at what it takes not only to physically survive, but mentally as well, as her characters travel around performing Shakespeare.

A deeper conclusion to most of these books is that it’s essentially the rejection of authoritarianism, and a focus on community is what will get people through a crisis and back to some sort of stability. That’s a good lesson to take home right now.


Further Reading


Currently Reading

I’ve got a handful of books that I’ve been working my way through. I recently finished Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando: Hard Contact, for a piece that *should* be out tomorrow on Polygon. It holds up wonderfully. I also recently finished Daniel Suarez’s Delta-V, Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, and Nino Cipri’s Finna. Next newsletter, I’ll have some thoughts jotted down about those. (Not Finna — I’ve got a review submitted to Seven Days, which will go up at some point.)

Current reading list? Okatu by Chris Kluwe, which is pretty good so far, Gravity of a Distant Sun by R.E. Stearns, which I’m listening to and reading, and am generally enjoying. I wish this trilogy caught on a little more and was a little less dense, because there are some fantastic ideas in here, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebochi, and Myke Cole’s Sixteenth Watch.

March is also the month where there are a whole bunch of books that I want to read coming out all at once. There’s N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, K.B. Wager’s A Pale Light in the Black, Eddie Robson’s Hearts of Oak, and Eeleen Lee’s Liquid Crystal Nightingale. Will I get to all of those? Who can say? In April, there are another handful: John Scalzi’s The Last Emprerox, Hao Jingfan’s Vagabonds, and Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall.

That’s all for now — stay safe out there, and wash. your. hands.

Andrew