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Presented by State Library Victoria

Books about Pandemics

Perhaps not so long ago, we would refer to books about pandemics as either dystopian or historical fiction. But here we are, living through a pandemic in our present reality. These books now relate to our contemporary life more than ever!

Books about pandemics tend to be speculative – mostly set in the future  – or historical, referring to past pandemics like the plague or the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 (although there isn’t much fiction about the latter). The narrative tends to focus on either the post-pandemic world and survivors or about the experience of living through a pandemic. Sometimes the work will encompass both. Here is a selection you may be interested to seek out.

A classic in pandemic literature is A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, published in 1722. It is a fictional, first person account of the 1655 great plague of London. Defoe was only five years old during that plague and possibly used his Uncle’s journal as the basis for writing the work many years after the event.

Fiction innovator Mary Shelley wrote about a speculative post-apocalyptic post-pandemic world in 1826. The Last Man  is set in a desolate future and is said to be the first post-apocalyptic novel. The reviews were not good and the book has been eclipsed by her better known creation, Frankenstein.

The Winter Series by Mark Smith

Road to Winter, Wilder Country, Land of Fences.

Set in a future Australia that has been ravaged by a pandemic virus, this series centres on a lone boy survivor, Finn, and his dog Rowdy. Society has broken down and Finn becomes an enemy to the rogue violent gang, the Wilders, when he helps free two enslaved women Rose and Kas. While set in the future, the books expose many elements of our society today, most notably Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. They would be fascinating to read during these times!

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Told through the eyes of 18 year old Anna Frith, Year of Wonders explores the quarantine and isolation of a village of 350 people during the 1666 Plague outbreak. The book explores the way people react to the plague – science vs religion, sorcery fear and panic. And based on a true story the book is “an eloquent memorial to the real-life Derbyshire villagers who chose to suffer alone during England’s last great plague.”  Which does beg the question – what can we learn from past pandemics?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Interestingly, this story is set in a post-pandemic world but with flashbacks to both the pre-pandemic world and to the pandemic unfolding. Currently on the VCE curriculum (which is pretty wild for those students) the post-pandemic story is about an acting troupe traveling through the apocalyptic landscape with only one play salvaged, Shakespeare’s King Lear. A virus known as “Georgia flu” has decimated the population twenty years previously. The story flashes back and interweaves characters lives, past and present, through King Lear but also through a salvaged graphic novel, Dr Eleven. The novel ultimately asks, “If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?”

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Set at an all-girls boarding school where there has been an outbreak of the disease called “The Tox”.  Survivors are permanently physically damaged in different ways, growing scales on their skin or second spines or even losing their eyes. Eighteen months after the outbreak,  the school is in quarantine on a small island and girls start disappearing. As the girls search for their friends they uncover other hidden truths about the virus.

Severence by Ling Ma

Severence is set in an alternate recent past that sees New York city gripped by a pandemic – infectious fungal spores of Shen Fever transmitted around the world through the transport of commodities. It centres on a 20 year old Chinese -American woman, Candace Chen, a millennial workaholic addicted to publisher office routine facing survival during the outbreak. The book explores her immigrant experiences, social and work culture with a satirical edge, while the plot propels her on a road trip through America’s abandoned cities seeking out other survivors of the virus. The novel is an examination of contemporary life, consumerism, capitalism and identity against the crisis of a pandemic.

What will we learn from these pandemic books that relate to us in the here and now? Are you keen to read them? Recommend any others? Comment below!