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Alternate History and Pandemics

By Andy Cooke

St. Louis in 1918 during the Influenza Pandemic.

Fiction holds up a mirror to reality. As well as our deep-seated urge to create a narrative structure around the world in which we live, the stories we create give us lessons, warnings, and prepare us for certain circumstances.

The unfolding circumstances around us right now, however, tend not to have been shown properly in fiction. From where I'm sitting today - the 27th of March, 2020 - we seem to be heading into a gap where few narratives have ever shown us the way. A gap where there is massive upheaval and disruption to so many areas of society, the economy, and politics, but not, thank God, the steps into a true post-apocalyptic wasteland.

This is not to minimise the horrors that so many in the world are facing up to. The potential deaths of loved ones, the widespread loss of jobs and huge uncertainty over the future, economic contraction on a scale not seen in living memory, social isolation to a degree unimagined, the (temporary) end of all sports, all of varying levels depending on what country you live in and the impacts on your own areas. But it will not be apocalyptic - unlike the overwhelming majority of literature featuring fictional pandemics. With the mitigation and suppression strategies put into place by most of the world, the death toll should be vastly lower than it could otherwise have been, albeit at an economic cost that seems certain to reverberate for decades, and potentially cause previously unthought-of political and economic changes.

So why did so few stories address this? It's not as if it doesn't provide huge scope for drama and human interest.

When you look through all the fiction on pandemics – and, to be honest, virtually every pandemic novel written becomes alternate history simply by the fact that we didn’t encounter a pandemic at the time in which it is set – there’s one very common theme.


Arguably the most famous such novel is, The Stand, by Stephen King, when a genetically engineered virus gets out and wipes out billions. The virus is so communicable that 99.4% of humanity catches it, and when you catch it, you die. Moreover, no vaccine is possible due to its deliberate mutablility.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake also has a lethal virus, called JUVE. Deliberately spread and bioengineered, it likewise wipes out billions.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, differing from the previous two by being set in the past, has the bubonic plague mutate into a form so strong “it killed off all its hosts and therefore died itself.” This plague empties Europe, and makes for a very different stage on which world history would evolve.

Even the Ebola virus in Executive Orders, which didn’t cause a transition to a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the end, was terrifying in its lethality.

There are many such examples. Including ones that kill people and then reanimate them into zombies, but those head over into pure fantasy. Very few novels deal with diseases like the real covid-19, with a very high survival rate – but still killing so many people that it rightly justifies huge measures to combat it. A rate of 1%-5% killed makes for a terrifying real-life pandemic, but might not be as viscerally frightening to the readers. Readers who would subconsciously calculate “well, virtually everyone survives, so what’s the problem?”

2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 as photographed by Rocky Mountain Laboratories for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence.

At least, not until March 2020. After this date, everyone’s instinctive baseline changes. And everyone knows just how bad those levels of lethality could be.

We now know that there is a lot more to the outcome of a pandemic than the individuals killed. The horrors of their deaths rightly got the focus of the readers in the past, but the effects of collapsing international travel, the effects on supply chains, the reactions of the public – these were almost only seen in the sense of “full global apocalypse” and done in order to showcase a transition to a post-apocalyptic setting.

(Executive Orders is a partial subversion of this – society and economy don’t collapse as it is contained in the end due to a mixture of martial law, travel bans (which, while they have an impact on the economy, fall far short of the real-life impact seen today), and viral fragility).

I will partially toot my own horn here, though. One pandemic mentioned in an alternate history novel – published by Sea Lion Press, in fact – had a lethality rate even lower than corvid-19 and still was shown to have horrific effects on the economy and society – but would have ended with a damaged but recovered economy and society. An impact that wouldn’t have been apocalyptic on its own, but would have shown a potentially huge redirection of the global economy and society.

Unfortunately, a relativistic projectile then smashed into the world at 99% of the speed of light to really kick us when we were down. Sorry.

Yes, I’m going on about my own The End, and Afterwards, published by SLP. Collapsing supply chains, hoarding (I looked at bottled water; unaccountably I missed foreseeing toilet rolls somehow. I mean, seriously, world? An author has to have realism, something reality rather unfairly doesn’t have to have), and an eventual breakdown in law and order (hopefully temporary). The economic impact was far worse than the one we see today, and without the crash of the Star Pioneer, it could have seen a very different book written. One I’d actually have liked to read.

I still would, actually, although maybe not right now.

One other thing that is common to most of those stories, though, and appears in the vast majority of pandemic narratives: the virus is manmade.

The events we are living through today, though, bring home the sobering fact that Nature is capable of causing a lot of damage on her own, without malicious or misguided deliberate help from humans.

It might seem thoughtless to discuss writing stories about pandemics when we are in the middle of the largest pandemic for a century. However, we are storytelling animals, and our stories create a narrative structure in a world where structure is often lacking. I believe discussing stories about the circumstances can be more helpful than painful. I cannot tell whether we would welcome stories written about pandemics sooner rather than later, to grab hold of that narrative structure, or whether we may all be a bit too raw to accept them in the immediate aftermath of our current outbreak.

While a significant number of pandemic stories written in the aftermath might still go towards fully apocalyptic scenarios, I would expect alot more future Alternate History stories about pandemics and viruses to be less constrained by an instinctive reach for lethality (or near lethality), and to be more ready to accept completely natural diseases. The political, economic, and social effects of a severe pandemic that falls short of being apocalyptic in its effects will be more likely to be addressed.

But, as I mentioned earlier, maybe not for a while. Not while we're actually still in the throes of a real-life such situation.


Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP.


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