Future Tense

Can’t Get Enough Ebola Coverage? Read These Great Pandemic Novels.

A man in Lagos reads a newspaper with a headline announcing government efforts to screen for Ebola on July 27, 2014.  

Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the second American suffering from Ebola will arrive in the United States for further treatment. Despite public assurances that Ebola is highly unlikely to spread in the United States, people are on edge. Angry Americans sent “nasty emails” and called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to say “How dare you bring Ebola into the country!?” CDC Director Tom Frieden told the Associated Press. He added, “I hope that our understandable fear of the unfamiliar does not trump our compassion when ill Americans return to the U.S. for care.”


The fear isn’t of the entirely unfamiliar—many Americans first became acquainted with Ebola through Richard Preston’s 1994 best-seller The Hot Zone, a nonfiction book that became the basis for Outbreak. It is, however, irrational at this point: Despite the close-the-borders terror that is pervading social media, there is little evidence to suggest that Ebola could become a major problem in the United States. (Have you seen the scary-looking paper about pig-to-nonhuman-primate airborne Ebola that people are passing around? “[U]nless you’re sitting next to an Ebola-infected pig, seriously, airborne transmission of Ebola viruses isn’t a big concern,” microbiologist and infectious disease epidemiologist Tara C. Smith writes on her blog Aetiology.)


Unfortunately, Outbreak hasn’t aged terribly well. But if you enjoy scaring yourself with Ebola coverage, you should consider picking up some of these pandemic novels—which may make you want to bathe in hand sanitizer instead of saying “Bless you” the next time a passer-by sneezes in your direction.

Flu-focused pandemic novels may be the scariest of all, because they feel the most realistic. The deadliest pandemic of all time, after all, was the 1918 Spanish flu. In Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World, a young stepmom is stranded with her charges, her husband stuck in Germany, as American health and order collapse. Peter Heller’s sparse The Dog Stars looks at an America nearly emptied out by the flu. And in Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez, a flu orphan is adopted by a religious family as society tries to rebuild.


Historical plagues
Geraldine Brooks’ excellent Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, which is set in a 17th-century English village, will make you grateful for modern hygiene and communication.

Zombie viruses
World War Z by Max Brooks, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson all imagine contagions don’t just eat away at your brain—they make people eat brains.


Alien ailments
The Andromeda Strain, a classic by Michael Crichton, imagines that aliens aren’t just intelligent—they are crafty jerks.

Manmade pandemics

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy looks at a world depopulated by a vicious, Ebola-like disease created by a mad scientist, while the new viruses of Paolo Bacigalpui’s The Windup Girl are just some of many man-invented problems plaguing Earth.


Reproductive plagues
World-ending diseases don’t have to kill victims immediately. They can also stop humanity from bringing forth new life. In Children of Men by P.D. James, women can no longer get pregnant; in The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, a new disease kills any woman who becomes pregnant. Birth control never seemed so important.

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But even if Ebola isn’t going to wrack the Western world, that doesn’t mean we should be flip about it. In a new piece for The New Yorker, Preston cautions, “People are wondering if the virus could spread to Europe or the United States, but the more immediate question is whether it could infect a whole lot more people in Africa.” Sometimes short-sighted self-interest is scarier than a plague—or a horror novel.