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These are the Ways the World Ends: Pestilence

By / September 21, 2017 / no comments

This week we’re looking at the different ways that science fiction has looked at the end of the world, or at least the end of human civilisation. The three horsemen of the sf apocalypse are War, Pestilence and the Environment. Today, it’s the turn of …


Station ElevenOne of the more powerful of contemporary novels of the end of the world, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, opens on a snowy evening as people start to fall ill from a new strain of influenza. Within days the world has been noticeably depopulated.

The Scarlet PlagueIn a way, Mandel’s novel brings the catastrophe story full circle. Disease, in the face of which we feel helpless, has long been a source of dread, and plague has always been a source of horrified fascination, as in A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. The earliest examples of the end of the world story, from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, tended to be generated by dread of a disease spreading so fast that it could not be controlled. Indeed, in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish Influenza pandemic proved, if anything, more destructive than the war itself, and seemed to bring such stories of plague to life.

The Andromeda StrainIn time, as medical knowledge increased (and people do, on the whole, find it hard not to trust doctors to cure their ills), the idea of a disease outbreak beyond the ability of our health services to cope is something that has tended to slip out of view. Instead, plagues come from outer space, as in The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, or, more commonly, are artificially generated and deliberately released by some sort of super villain. The White PlagueExamples of this include The White Plague by Frank Herbert, in which a misogynist releases a plague that specifically targets women; or The Patron Saint of Plagues by Barth Anderson, in which the disease has been engineered to target a computer implant that people now wear. An extreme form of this is Blood Music by Greg Bear, in which transformed RNA molecules grow into a new form of consciousness that takes over and remakes the entire biosphere.

The M.d.: A Horror StoryThe advent of AIDS, however, revived the dread of a plague that could strike without warning and without hope of cure. Devastating plagues began to reappear in science fiction, as in The MD: A Horror Story by Thomas M. Disch. NodQuite quickly, however, this new sense of plague transmogrified, with the plague taking different forms that unsettle our sense of security and normality, from sleeplessness in Nod by Adrian Barnes to zombies in a host of novels such as Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

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