So, voluntary self-isolation becomes a mandatory lock-down.
Plenty of people have been discussing relevant films, TV shows and literature that deal with pandemics, deadly diseases and the like. GIFs from Shaun of the Dead, and all the other zombie movies, fill my timeline.
As for me, I have found that my mind keeps wandering back to three books I read in recent years, which all include moments of apocalyptic lock-down.
The first is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. It tells the story of a very different kind of global crisis to that which we are experiencing right now—One where the threat is celestial rather than biological. For reasons never explained (and which don’t matter) the moon splits and disintegrates, creating a ‘hard rain’ of asteroids that pummels the earth and kills pretty much everyone. A lucky few thousand people mange to evacuate to a hastily extended International Space Station, where they try to rebuild civilisation from scratch, in space. Things go badly, but humanity does survive.
Stephenson’s world-building is deep and detailed. His protagonists have the benefit of near-future but entirely plausible technologies, and the first half of the book is a sort of disaster procedural, with plenty of detail of the international diplomacy, protocols and logistics required to evacuate a suitably diverse section of humanity. There’s also descriptions of orbital mechanics, Lagrange Points and the harnessing of ice from comets for fuel.
Crucially, it turns out later in the book that some humans manage to survive down on the surface. A group of ‘preppers’ in Alaska repurpose an old mine and take shelter underground for the several centuries it takes for the asteroid bombardment to abate. And a cohort of military personnel take a nuclear submarine to the bottom of the ocean and wait out the storm down there. It is a suffocating thought… but Stephenson’s point is that humanity will do what it takes to survive, whether buried in a mine shaft, submerged in a submarine or squeezed into a space ship.
And more: the peculiar circumstances of each group’s isolation gives rise to new cultural practices. The spacefarers language develops into an English-Russian hybrid as used by astronauts, while the mineshaft dwellers develop their own kind of Griot, young women chosen to memorise a bunch of encyclopaedia entries as a way of preserving the old knowledge. I wonder what words, phrases and customs might enter our cultural lexicon as a result of COVID-19?
The premise of NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy, each of which won a Hugo Award in successive years) is that the world ‘ends’ on a semi-regular basis. Whether it’s a cloud of volcanic ash that blots out the sky, or some kind of plague, the planet on which the story takes place (is it our Earth, or somewhere else?) is so hostile to its inhabitants that the entire culture is orientated towards surviving the inevitable ‘fifth season’ that can come at any time.
Villages and towns all have grain stores and walls and other infrastructure designed to help in a lock-down. And in place of religious texts, the inhabitants of ‘the Stillness’ revere a set of stone tablets, onto which ancient peoples carved memorable survival tips. It’s made me think about how, even during this very temporary and (relative to the fiction) mild crisis, a sort of folklore is emerging to help people get through it: songs to help you wash your hands, for example.
The final book I have been thinking of is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Its a story of two different kinds of immortal fighting each other over decades, and is emphatically not set in a lock-down or any kind of apocalypse.
However, it’s final sequence – an extended denouement after the Big Baddie has been defeated – takes place in the near future, where a global crisis has caused government power to retreat. The main character finds herself caring for two children in a hamlet in Ireland, as food becomes scarce and marauding gangs edge closer. It is a foreboding piece of writing, one that perfectly conveys the fragility of civilisation and the paper-thin conceptual boundaries that keep barbarism at bay.
When I hear news of hospitals running out of essential equipment, or of doctors Jerry-rigging ventilators to serve nine patients instead of one; when I see chaotic scenes filmed at supermarkets as people scramble for toilet paper, I think of Mitchell’s final chapter, and shudder.