12 Books About Pandemics
Novels for people who find it oddly soothing to read about plagues
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
As the world struggles to come to terms with the growing COVID-19 crisis, many of us are turning to fiction as a way of understanding the scope of the danger—and, perhaps paradoxically, a way of finding comfort. If the last thing you want to think about right now is global epidemic disease, we get that! But novels can also help people wrap their heads around something that may seem too big and scary to process. If you feel like you’re living in the first pages of a post-apocalyptic story, these books about historical and speculative future pandemics might help you feel less alone. Pick one up, and then wash your hands.
Severance by Ling Ma
Candace Chen has resigned herself to a soul-crushing 9-to-5 job at a Manhattan publishing house that produces novelty Bibles embellished with semi-precious stones (tacky, but important for later on in the novel). The company outsources the manufacturing to a factory in China whose workers are dying from lung disease because of the dangerous working conditions mining the semi-precious stones. Soon the Shen Fever spreads through the world via the mass-produced cheap junk produced in Chinese factories, turning the population into zombies who are doomed to repeat the same actions until they die. Candace and her band of millennials find refuge in a mall, turning to Google to figure out how to survive the apocalypse (until the internet dies, that is). Sure, Severance is a pandemic-zombie-dystopian-novel, but it’s also a relatable millennial coming-of-age story and an intelligent critique of exploitative capitalism, mindless consumerism, and the drudgery of bullshit jobs.
The Dreamers by Karen Thomas
A plague has taken over a small college town in the middle of nowhere SoCal: “The first stage of sleep is the lightest, the brief letting go, like the skipping of a stone across the water.” One by one, the college students fall asleep into a heightened state of dreaming, but… they don’t wake up. The survivors are forced into quarantine on campus and forbidden from leaving in case they spread the illness to the wider population (sounds familiar?). The Dreamers is a propulsive novel about the lengths we will go to in order to survive.
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
Novels about what life might be like in the grips of a global epidemic don’t have to be speculative fiction—we’ve already had widespread and deadly worldwide diseases, like the 1918 Spanish flu. They Came Like Swallows is a finely-crafted, understated novel about family dynamics set against a backdrop of illness and fear, as influenza rages through a Midwestern town.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A viral pandemic, the Georgia Flu, has exploded “like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth,” wiping out 99% of the global population. The Travelling Symphony, made up of musicians and actors, roam from small town to small town (all that remains of North America) in horse-drawn wagons to entertain survivors with concerts and theatrical performances. At one of their stops, their hopes to reunite with two members of their troupe and their newborn baby are dashed when they discover that the town is under the sway of a cult controlled by “The Prophet.” Weaving in flashbacks, Station Eleven is a quietly haunting novel about nostalgia and survival.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
This novel is a sequel to Oryx and Crake, which is perhaps better-known (it was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 2003). But where Oryx and Crake mostly sets up the circumstances leading up to the “Waterless Flood,” a manmade disease that decimated humanity, The Year of the Flood zeroes in on life after the devastation. How did people try to survive the plague? How do they rebuild, physically and emotionally? Unlike many post-apocalyptic novels (including Oryx and Crake), this one focuses on the experiences of women.
Blindness by Jose Saramago
In this haunting, disorienting novel, a city suffers a mysterious epidemic that leaves its victims blind. Quarantined in an empty mental hospital, the sightless patients are subject to violence, exploitation, and fear; the group at the center of the story bands together to escape their confinement, but they can’t escape the collapse of society due to panic and government mishandling.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
A plague has transformed the infected population into “skeletons.” The military has purged Zone One of Lower Manhattan of the living dead and now they are attempting to restore civilization through propaganda (American Phoenix Rising) and a cheesy anthem (“Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? ‘Theme from Reconstruction’”). The novel follows the very passive Mark Spitz, a former social media manager turned zombie-sweeper (both of which he’s just mediocre at), as he narrates his post-apocalyptic life into a non-functional Bluetooth. A dense and darkly humorous novel, Zone One leaves readers questioning “who are the real zombies?”
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
Pale Horse, Pale Rider was written by 1918–19 flu pandemic survivor Katherine Anne Porter. A bittersweet romance that will make you cry, this short novel revolves around a doomed love set amidst WWI and the outbreak of the Spanish flu.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The Dog Stars is set 10 years after a flu epidemic has decimated most of the American population. Hig, his dog Jasper, and a sardonic old man with a stock-pile of weapons live in an abandoned airport. The trio spend their days barricading themselves against violent bandits (who, for some unfathomable reason, wear necklaces made out of vaginas???). When Hig receives an unexpected transmission through the radio of his plane, it sparks hope in him that there is still civilization outside of their compound.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
A body horror coming-of-age novel, Wilder Girls is set at an all-girls boarding school on an isolated island that is under quarantine. A year and a half ago, a disease called “The Tox” spread through the school; those who survived grew second spines or scales on their skin or turned luminescence. Not even the wildlife is immune from the epidemic as the animals mutate and stalk the school’s gates. One by one, the girls disappear and it’s up to their friends to find out what has happened to them.
The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen
The Last Town on Earth is about a small mill town, Commonwealth, in the Pacific Northwest who have voted to quarantine themselves against the Spanish flu. No one in and no one out. Philip Worthy assigned to guard the one road that leads in and out of the town when he has to decide whether to allow a weary refuge-seeking soldier into Commonwealth.
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
We all know that Mary Shelley pioneered the science-fiction genre, but did you know that she also invented the apocalypse novel? Published in 1826, The Last Man is set in 2100 England where a plague has left only one man alive, Lionel Verney.