A Taxonomy of Pandemic Art

Pandemic novels and movies, like the diseases they portray, have different strains, each with their own defining characteristics.

Book covers of pandemic novels.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via Amazon.

When it first became clear that the coronavirus was going to massively change the way we live, people began searching for comparisons between this and other, fictional plagues. Contagion was a popular one. So was The Stand, so much so that Stephen King felt compelled to speak up. “No, coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND,” he tweeted. “It’s not anywhere near as serious.” Essentially, calm down.

But people were not deterred. On the contrary, we all thirsted, it seemed, for more narrative road maps, and plenty of outlets tried to find them. The Los Angeles Times implored us to turn to pandemic-centric cinema to understand our new reality. Electric Literature had a list of pandemic novels. So did Vulture and the New York Times. “Fear the worst?” the Times asked. “Writers have been doing that for centuries.”

But these stories do not all show us the same worst. Pandemic art, like the diseases it portrays, has different strains, each with their own defining characteristics. The genre can be divided, I believe, into two main branches: the historical and the speculative, then the speculative split further still. Classifying these genres might seem like splitting hairs. (Though what else is there to do when social distancing?) But by examining what we get from these texts, why we keep turning to them for answers, might help us break the habit of doing so. “The problem is your imagination,” Francesco Pacifico writes from lockdown in Rome. “Stop using dystopias as your compass.” In other words, stop thinking you know what’s coming. In a time when it feels so difficult to imagine the future, it makes sense to find comfort in those who already have tried to do so.

Some works of pandemic art are historical stories tethered to real diseases, real times. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The Decameron. Angels in America. Whether they were written contemporaneously to the crisis they describe or in retrospect, whether they deploy straight realism or not, they are concerned, fundamentally, with the particularities of the world as it was. They are works of historical fiction or at least become so, in a way, through the passage of time.

But these historical works are not, in general, the ones that we have turned to in these strange weeks. For the lingua franca of our collective psyches, we must look to the other strain, the speculative. For all their historical antecedents or scientific advisers, the pandemics they describe are fictional. It is these that seem to capture our imagination, perhaps because we crave prediction. “The foreseeable future,” we keep saying, as though we could foresee anything. In a time when it feels so difficult to imagine the future, it makes sense to find comfort in those who already have tried to do so. It makes sense, too, to hope (or fear) they got it right, because even that fear is a kind of hope. At least it means that someone knows what’s coming. It is less frightening to think the compass is leading us somewhere dark than that there is no compass at all. But speculative pandemic works are not unitary. I see two distinct subgenres, each with its own tropes and concerns. Let’s describe these as the hypothetical and the fantastic.

The hypothetical narratives are, as the name suggests, “what if” stories. Our heroes sit, if not in the halls of power, at least closer to them. We see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the doctors on the front lines. Think of The Andromeda Strain. Outbreak. Contagion. It is indicative of the tone of these texts that their titles have a clinical tinge. There is a lot of time in labs and dialogue littered with acronyms of government agencies. They are deeply interested in the ways in which things spread, the mechanisms of human movement and political behavior. The disease, then, is a catalyst. It is the thing that leads us through the decision tree, that lets us see the ways in which our systems would bend or break in response to a test of their capacities. In general, these stories have a similar pleasure to tonguing a burn on the roof of one’s mouth—their pain is compulsive and satisfying, cathartic, in the most traditional, dramaturgical sense of the term. They allow us to play through to the end of a worst-case scenario and purge our fear through vicarious experience. Lawrence Wright’s forthcoming novel The End of October will almost certainly fall into this category. He says he began with a question: “How could human civilization become so broken?” This is, I think, the question at the heart of the hypothetical subgenre. It focuses on the how. The fantastic stories, on the other hand, focus on the break.

If the hypothetical is a stress test of civilization, then the fantastic is a stress test of the soul. The focus tends inward or upward, to questions about morality, love, art, God. These are stories like Blindness. Severance. The Plague. These are more interior stories and, often, more apocalyptically minded. If these works take us to the halls of power here, they are usually abandoned, their former denizens dead or dying. But that is the core of their appeal. We want to read about characters who rise or sink to the occasion, because we like to think about which we would be. There’s an appeal in thinking that the world wiped clean would wipe our sins with it, or at least some of our shortcomings. We’d be better, perhaps, more heroic, more just, more ourselves. The fantastical subgenre’s appeal is most akin to that of other post-apocalyptic stories, eloquently described by Elmo Keep as a perverse form of wish fulfillment: “If this actually happened,” they ask, “what kind of person would I be?” Or as Shirley Jackson put it in The Sundial, her own stab at the apocalypse: “You want the whole world to be changed just so you will be different.”

The diseases in the fantastic stories tend to feel more explicitly metaphorical than those in the hypothetical category, less tethered to the precise mechanics of a fictive virus. (The looping actions of Shen Fever victims in Severance, for example, versus the respiratory-neurological one-two punch in Contagion.) But it is not always the nature of the disease itself that defines these categories; Station Eleven’s Georgian Flu might be more strictly plausible than the zombie hordes of World War Z, but I would argue that the former is fantastical and the latter hypothetical. The novel version of World War Z, with its framing as a fictional oral history, has far more in common, tonally, with the clinical world of Steven Soderbergh than Station Eleven does, with its roving troubadours and wistful lists of what we miss. World War Z is more systems. Station Eleven is more souls.

There is a popular video of Italian mayors scolding their constituents for going outside and in it the mayor of Reggio Calabria, says: “Look, this isn’t a film. You are not Will Smith in I Am Legend. So, you have to go home.” His reference is telling. It is fiction, more than history, that marks the borders of our collective imagination, and none more so than science fiction. We imbue it with prophetic capabilities, argue about whether Orwell or Huxley was “right” as though they were futurists making projections rather than writers making art. We need look no further than Wright’s aforementioned novel, already called “prophetic,” to see that we are still doing this. We could argue that it is harmless, helpful even. But when we look to our fictions to imagine our futures, they can lead us down strange cul-de-sacs, leave us craving flying cars and swiping shitty touch screens. They can also lead to arrogance, some belief that we’ve seen this movie and we know what’s coming, that we might be Will Smith after all, the hero of this story, exempt from chance, at the center of the narrative. That we’ll make it, maybe, even if others don’t.

We do not have to go without stories. Pacifico suggests Tolstoy, and I’d second that. If I feel the itch for pandemic literature, I’ll choose the historical strand over the speculative. It is calming, in a strange way, to think of the dying Florence of The Decameron and to know that it had yet to see either the Renaissance or fascism, that all the hope and horrors of centuries of history lay before it, as its future. Maybe this is cold comfort to some, but it soothes me to think that in the grand scheme, things collapse but slowly, which is to say, they change. That, in general, our endings are more whimpers than bangs. It reminds me of the words of the Dark Mountain Project, a group devoted to changing the stories we tell ourselves around climate change: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.” But mostly I hope to stay awake to the particulars of our lives now, to the slipstream of the present that now carries us along. To not compare or imagine, but to notice. The other night, speaking with a friend who’d likely been exposed, we chatted about “the symptoms,” and she laughed. “It sounds like dialogue from a bad movie,” she said. Even if she was right, it didn’t matter. It was what we were talking about. It was our lives. It will be for some time to come. There’s no story to tell us how it ends.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.