Fiction of the plague

Many novels reveal that the human kind has passed through this before and has survived

Daniel Defoe

Books reflect reality. Sometimes they even predict future reality. In times of uncertainty literature provides not only escape and companionship, but serves as a consolation and a guide. There were many plagues and pandemics during the centuries, and some of them have served as an inspiration to writers either to describe in an art manner the interaction between disease and humans, or to lay down a possible future on paper. But all of them certainly show that the human kind has passed through this before and has survived.

Here come some of the most emblematic examples of the so-called pandemic fiction.

A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe (1722)

From 1665 to 1666, bubonic plague returned to Britain and devastated the city of London — killing roughly one quarter of its population in the span of 18 months. Over 50 years later, Daniel Defoe drew upon historical documents to write a realistic account of the plague’s effects on the city. He begins in September 1664, when rumours circulate of the return of ‘pestilence’ to Holland. In December comes the first suspicious death in London, and then, in spring, Defoe describes how death notices posted in local parishes have taken an ominous rise. By July, the City of London enforces new rules, such as “that all public feasting, and dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment, be forborne till further order and allowance…” By August, Defoe writes, the plague is “very violent and terrible”; by early September it reaches its worst, with “whole families, and indeed whole streets of families swept away together.”

Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter (1939)

The novel is set around the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and focuses on a young woman falling in love with a soldier, as both influenza and World War I loom ominously. As people now practice ‘social distancing’ and communities around the globe withdraw into lockdown, description of the 1918 devastation feels familiar: “It’s as bad as anything can be... all the theatres and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night”, heroine Miranda’s friend Adam tells her shortly after she is diagnosed with influenza. The book for sure hasn’t lost its contemporary resonance. The author almost died from the plague of influenza herself.


The Plague, Albert Camus (1947)

In Albert Camus’ The Plague, the city of Oran in Algeria is shut down for months as the plague decimates its people, and the description abounds with parallels to today’s crisis. Local leaders are reluctant at first to acknowledge the early signs of the plague dying rats littering the streets. “Are our city fathers aware that the decaying bodies of these rodents constitute a grave danger to the population?” asks a columnist in the local newspaper. In the end, there’s the lesson learned by the plague’s survivors: “They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”


The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton (1969)

The techno-thriller documents the efforts of a group of scientists dealing with an epidemic outbreak caused by a deadly extra-terrestrial microorganism, that’s constantly evolving and has no precedent in human history.


The Stand, Stephen King (1978)

In The Stand, the devastation of humanity by a virus named “Captain Trips” is only the beginning of the nightmarish scenario his characters face. It’s a book with transgressive power; as “you can feel the great relish King took in burning it all down in The Stand.”


Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985)

“Plagues are like imponderable dangers that surprise people,” Gabriel García Márquez told the New York Times in 1988. “They seem to have a quality of destiny.” In the same interview, he spoke of his fondness for Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and how it was one of the inspirations for this decades-spanning tale of star-crossed lovers, where death is never far from the reader’s mind.


The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman (1989)

Ryman’s sprawling, thought-provoking The Child Garden deals with a futuristic society in which viruses are used as a tool to benefit and educate humans. In this world, cancer has been cured but life spans have been reduced as an unexpected consequence. It’s a novel in which concepts of sickness, health, and mortality itself are turned on their heads. It’s also reflective of Ryman’s approach to fiction. In a 2006 interview, he said, “Stories make us sick. Neuroses and psychoses are just stories we tell ourselves and believe.”


Blindness, José Saramago (1995)

In the Nobel Prize–winning author’s Blindness, a growing number of people within a city find themselves unable to see. The government’s response is heavy-handed and authoritarian. Saramago followed it up years later with another novel, Seeing, which dealt with some of the same themes in a very different way.


The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

Over the course of a few years in the 14th century, the bubonic plague killed millions of people in Europe. Robinson’s alternate history, The Years of Rice and Salt, is set in a world that one character describes as “a mutation of the plague, so strong it killed off all its hosts and therefore died itself.” All of which is to say that Europe is largely empty for centuries in the world of this novel, causing a very different balance of global power to emerge.


Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003)

The first volume in her near-future MaddAdam trilogy describes a world devastated by the effects of genetic engineering, including a plague that has wiped out much of humanity. As with much of Atwood’s speculative fiction, it feels eerily prescient regarding events that took place after its 2003 publication, a cautionary tale about the unexpected and terrible places technology could take us all.


Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Much of Mandel’s acclaimed novel is set in the wake of a devastating strain of the flu, which kills 99 percent of humanity. The book’s structure juxtaposes scenes of survivors of the epidemic with the sudden end of the world as we know it, as the Georgian flu wreaks havoc. Mandel’s story is an ultimately hopeful one, focusing on the ways art endures.

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