By guest columnist, Emily McGowan.
“I don’t know how, but I guess she carried it home. At first, she stole the telephone and shut herself in her room. That was stupid, I told myself, because it might be nothing—just a cold, the flu, anything else.”— [The Dresden Protocol, chapter 23]
I never asked for COVID-19.
Like most of us, I learned about coronavirus in the final hours of 2019. Dozens of patients had fallen ill in Wuhan, China; by January 11th, the World Health Organization had identified a new disease which we now know as COVID-19. Fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath — the early symptoms looked innocent, but within weeks, all hell had broken loose. 4,296 dead. 119,179 infected, though these numbers grow by the minute. Italy has closed its borders, and in America, hand sanitizer is practically worth its weight in gold. Every day, coronavirus creeps one step closer to my hometown of Savannah, Georgia. Rumor has it that we may have our first patient already.
In the early days, I wasn’t too concerned. Disease is not a staple of my first world lifestyle, and last I checked, my name isn’t Nostradamus.”Come writers and critics,” Dylan sang, “Who prophesize with your pen/And keep your eyes wide/The chance won’t come again.”
I write speculative fiction. This genre isn’t magic, but it certainly isn’t science either. When I sit down to type, I’m perfectly content to tell stories about what people want, why they want them, and what outlandish thing stands in their way. I deal in fallen heroes and folklore. It feels like the most important job in the world, but at the end of the day, I’m selling you words. And behind the safety of my computer, I told myself that this threat—a real live virus—could never land on the shores of my quiet little life.
Unfortunately, that’s not how pandemics work. In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has spread to and within America, infecting hundreds of patients from sea to shining sea. 267 cases in Washington. 176 in New York. Half a dozen cases were reported in my state — and all across Savannah, people are scrubbing their hands raw. Mothers wear masks in the grocery store. Locals look at Chinese students askance. The virus is spreading exponentially, and though it’s all we talk about, nobody knows quite what to expect. Not even the writers.
Compared to genres like romance or nonfiction, I believe that speculative fiction is somewhat unique in the wide world of literature. Its stories are founded on the premise of “what if.” What if time travel existed? What if men had handmaids? What if post-apocalyptic teenagers fell in love during a battle royale? At their best, these what-ifs are not attempts to escape our problems but to face or even solve them with a fresh perspective. In order to be effective, speculative fiction often blends this ‘what if’ with tangible details, something solid that grounds the reader in the harsh realities that our world desperately needs.
Except reality is the last thing many of us want. With every day that passes, the morbid headlines bog us down — and when given the choice between denial and a COVID-induced anxiety attack, we’d happily pick the first. It’s overblown, we tell ourselves. Any day now, the virus is going to die out and everyone who stockpiled toilet paper and Lysol will see that we were right. At best, this veers into tone-policing, and at worst, I fear that it is leading to some very reckless behavior — and not the type you might think. It’s become popular to mock people for being over-cautious, but what do we say about the people who don’t wash their hands? The ones who bring their “cold” into a crowded movie theatre? The ones who force their employees to come to work?