I hope this update finds my half-dozen loyal readers healthy and free of COVID-19. In my previous update dated February 27, I thought COVID-19 was something distant and intangible. But for the past three months our lives have turned into a dystopian apocalypse.
The Pandemic as Science Fiction
For more than a century, stories like The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells have pitted mankind against invading alien forces. We’re in our own science fiction battle between two species now, but our adversary isn’t a Martian. A virus is a strange, malevolent beast as alien as anything from outer space. Its earthly origins make its alien nature even more terrifying.
SARS-CoV-2 is the strain of genus betacoronavirus that causes COVID-19. We’ve casually nicknamed it coronavirus, a larger group that includes SARS, MERS, and the common cold.
Much like The Blob, SARS-CoV-2 is a mindless killer with no consciousness or will of its own. Unlike the Blob, viruses are non-motile and lie inert when undisturbed. They neither eat nor excrete. Without a host, viruses are unable to reproduce. Most biologists don’t consider viruses to be living organisms.
Alive or not, SARS-CoV-2 is a parasite that co-exists with the organic chemistry of organic life. It attaches to our mucus-producing cells and infects us with its RNA. Once infected, our hijacked cellular chemistry produces copy after copy of coronavirus, which we spew out with every cough.
Our Setting: The Transition
Apocalypse stories commonly focus on desolate Mad Max-style worlds with ruined or sunken cities ravaged by mutants or madmen. By focusing on the world of the apocalypse, these stories gloss over the transition that brought it. Our one-hundred day transition destroyed our normal lives and left us isolated, emotionally scarred, and mourning one million sick or dead. I’d set my story in the tense transition period with its inherent stress and conflict.
In the first weeks of lockdown, we were dragged from our warm and cozy social gatherings and thrown into the icy waters of isolation, comparable to solitary confinement’ with its documented detrimental psychological effects. Once only the domain of grandparents, video conferencing became a poor substitute for the physical presence we crave.
That’s a great setting for a psychological thriller, but we can add boredom to enhance the tension. Whether we were unemployed, underemployed, or out of school, we had far too much time on our hands. Many would rather inflict themselves with pain than sit idle. Our boredom had fangs.
Panic ran through the transition period like a low voltage electric charge. We executed grocery shopping with casual familiarity until we found cobwebs and dusty shelves instead of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Shopping trips turned into search and destroy operations, planned with military precision. Fearing food processing plant closures would continue, we stockpiled meat products. We adopted a survivalist mentality. Paranoia became rational.
Our control was slipping away. We looked for anything that might provide some sense of security. We saw our political leaders spreading specious reassurances while they dumped their stocks. With even the most reliable services such as garbage and the US mail threatened, uncertainty became palpable.
In apocalypse narratives, the characters have already realized they’re on their own. That realization occurs during the transition, and in our pandemic, it happened gradually. Some of us have already realized government won’t save us. Others remain in denial, and that creates inherent conflict.
As we leave the transition period, it settles in, the notion that we’re no better or safer than anyone else, that we all share the same planet, that an outbreak anywhere is a risk to everyone. We see with our own eyes that our country is unable to stop the sickness and death. And we grieve the loss of our national identity.
In a recent interview, Ted Chiang described two possible conclusions for the disaster narrative. In the conservative pattern, the good world is invaded by evil. Good wins over evil, and the world is restored to its pre-disaster state. In the progressive pattern, the initially familiar world is permanently changed by some event or scientific advancement.
We hope for the conservative narrative, in which our lives return to normal. Humanity must triumph over coronavirus with a vaccine. We must return to a world in which we can enjoy our lattes and microbrews. We won’t consider the alternative. It’s too uncertain. It’s too terrifying.
But our story of the transition concludes with Chiang’s progressive narrative. After sheltering in place for weeks, SARS-CoV-2 is still here, co-existing with us like the alien species in District 9. We emerge from our homes to find our world has changed, and so have we—in ways we might be unable to admit.
Our science fiction story resolves the immediate plot, but leaves us in a new world with larger issues looming. Can humanity change its trajectory? Or are we doomed to consume and eventually exhaust the planet’s resources? Future generations will write that sequel.
Image courtesy of NIAID-RML.
RMFW Gold Rush
Over the past three months, I’ve spent my time doing two things: watching, horrified, as our species succumbed to one of the worst viral outbreaks in history, and preparing an entry for the RMFW Gold Rush Literary Awards.
This was my first entry in the annual competition for unpublished writers of commercial, novel-length fiction. Entries are essentially a novel pitch and consist of the first 4,000 words of a manuscript plus a 250-word synopsis. Finalists will be announced later this summer, and winners on September 10.
I’d love to tell you about my entry and its inspiration, but I have no idea who reads my blogs and don’t want to risk being disqualified. I’ll continue developing the story over the summer.
What I’m Reading
Yep, still reading my bi-monthly Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine.
I’ve finished a lot of non-fiction recently. Here they are, with my brief thoughts:
- Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. A segment on 60 Minutes inspired me to read this account of Theranos founder Elizabeth Homes. I’ve worked for some miserable tech companies, but none were as bad as theranos.
- How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen. Good advice for writing back-cover copy.
- On Writing by Charles Bukowski. Letters by the acclaimed author and poet.
- The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. A bestselling non-fiction book on the psychology of morals and how we decide between right and wrong.
- Sociolinguistics: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Johns. I can’t improve on the subtitle.
And I haven’t been ignoring fiction either.
- Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin. An excellent hard science fiction novel that explores weird quantum effects, the morality of scientific advancements, and human obsession.
- The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem. An artfully written tale of a sarcastic New Yorker in the wilds of California, bedecked with analogies of Trump-era social divisions.
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Wow. The skillfully written story of a teenage runaway fleeing a prophecy, an old man with a cognitive disorder who talks to cats, and the librarian who connects their lives. A 2002 bestseller.
- The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell. A historian has an affair with a playwright in this satire of the literary world. Published in 1948, the story features an authentic post-WWII Manhattan setting.
- The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. For grades 3-6, this enchanting children’s book is story craft in miniature.
- The Summer of Katya by Trevanian. Set in pre-WWI France, a small-town Basque doctor falls for a woman with a dark past.
- Pulp by Charles Bukowski. An amusing send-up of pulp detective stories. A quick read.
- The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut found his voice in 1959 with his second novel. This wry adventure dissects free will with Vonnegut’s trademark scalpel.
I’m currently reading one book.
- Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link
If my inexhaustible reading list could talk, it would tell me to get busy with the following books.
- Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
- Face It: A Memoir by Deborah Harry
- How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil
- The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
- Ultralearning by Scott Young
As the Snow Melts
Over the summer, as the Rocky Mountains lose their snow, watch for news about my short story, The Re-creation of Sahmik Ghee to be published in the 2020 RMFW Anthology this September.