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Entry updated 2 January 2023. Tagged: Theme.

A plague is a disease that travels from somewhere else. Many afflictions which are difficult to transmit, like leprosy, or the legion of cancers, are not normally described here, therefore, even loosely, as plagues, and are not treated in this encyclopedia under the Pandemic heading, a term here applied to contagions that invade. Various pestilences – including bubonic or pneumonic plague – do of course meet that loose criterion. Their pedigree is deep; invasive plagues have afflicted human communities since before recorded history began: though epidemiological records are necessarily scanty, it is increasingly accepted that for thousands of years pre-literate homo sapiens did in fact spread across the globe through a series of successive inchworm diachronic migrations along routes of travel that served not only as roads but as sophisticated synchronic trading networks open to the transmission of diseases long before literacy and the nation state. Preliterate societies clearly achieved some immunity, as they survived for aeons, though the rate and frequency of transmission must have been less severe than since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was certainly the case – as demonstrated by the fate of the nations and compact empires of both Americas, and the indigenous populations of innumerable Pacific Islands and Archipelagos – that once confronted with visitations of pestilence upon populations without immunity, the cost of isolation was great, an assumption common to much Prehistoric SF, where the rise of homo sapiens is likely to be linked to our serving as plague vectors.

History, which could be described in this context as a dis-ease that travels from somewhere else, came multiply into the world several thousand years BCE as a consequence of the transmission of writing, Agriculture, irrigation, priesthoods, nation states, great crowded cities, the territorial imperatives of empires: history is plague country. Diseases that spread on intercourse increased in frequency and venom along with the great trade routes and in desperately unsanitary urban complexes, though already existing immunities were strengthened over time. But no one was safe in the end from foreigners. The writing was on the wall of the world. History is a chronicle that celebrates those who survive plagues. For several thousand years, every migration (see Race in SF), every off-shore War, every Invasion, every mercantile Imperialism has brought the chance – the near certainty – of contagion.

There is all the same not much Proto SF centrally concerned with plagues – Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is of course an historical novel set during the plague of 1665 – nor are they much likely to figure in the Fantastic Voyages that proliferated before 1800, if for no stronger reason than the fact that, both in fictions and reality, it is normally the plague that makes the voyage. Biblical pestilences aside, the most famous historical plague recorded, the Black Death that decimated the fourteenth-century world, has been thought of as an instrumental moment in the shaping of modern Europe; in his metaphor-dense study of history, Kulturgeschichte Der Neuzeit (1927-1931 3vols; trans Charles Francis Atkinson as A Cultural History of the European Soul from the Black Death to the World War 1930-1932 3vols), Egon Friedell argues that 1348 "was the year in which modern man was conceived", an assertion of significance consistent with Hermann Hesse's emblematical use of that plague in his Narciß und Goldmund (1930; best trans Leila Vennewitz as Narcissus and Goldmund 1994). The Black Death's importance does centrally shape some contemporary sf novels, like Connie Willis's Doomsday Book (1992) or Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), both of which deal directly with that pestilence; or less centrally Michael Crichton's Timeline (1999). Robinson's use of the Black Death as the Jonbar Point that generates an Alternate History comes perhaps as close to a full-blooded sf use of a pre-1800 epidemic as is likely to occur. Sf stories where Forerunners or Aliens or time travellers (see Time Travel) or Secret Masters attempt to shape history through infections are not of much relevance here, even those in which the Bible is reinterpreted as a record of one or another of these impositions.

It is only around the beginning of the nineteenth century, in part because of the vast increase in imperial trade and travel, that the world begins to be seen as a planet, as in M Volney's revolutionary The Ruins (1791); and it is only around this time that pestilences come to be understood as significant shapers of the past, as planetary in their present consequences, and as deadly actors in the newly vivid and storyable Near Futures that early authors of what may be termed Fantastika were beginning to envision (see also Ruins and Futurity).Lord Byron's "Darkness" (in The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems, coll 1816 chap) may be the first fictional narrative clearly to envision the planet as a whole caught in the throes of radical transformation; it is consequently the first tale to afford a theoretical home and time-frame for what will normally be called a Pandemic in this encyclopedia: a plague or other contagion perceived as a planetary event, whose encroachment from elsewhere almost invariably occurs in an envisioned Near Future, and is often – as in the actual world – zoonotic: originating in another species: like pigs, or bats, or, more charismatically, Aliens.

The first full and significant example of a Pandemic so described is probably Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), whose Last Man protagonist traces the almost universally fatal disease from its apparent inception in the Middle East across the rest of the civilized world; at novel's end, he is about to attempt to sail solo across the globe in search of another human being. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (May 1842 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine as "The Mask of the Red Death"), though short, vividly captures the sense of plague as a catastrophic sudden inescapable revelation of the nature of the new world. The nonfantastic The Betrothed (1827; rev 1840) by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) contains, in its description of the plague that crippled Milan in 1630, perhaps the most intense nineteenth-century rendering of this category of devastation; but nineteenth-century tales which describe a full Pandemic as it happens are in fact uncommon. William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City (1880 chap) does convey its narrator's vivid memories of a contagion as it happens, restricted as with Manzoni to a single City, in this case London. Yellow Peril novels are likely to hint at corruptions imported from the east (see Imperialism; Race in SF), but usually climax in the defeat of those bearing the infection before life in the West can be terminated. M P Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901) focuses on the Fantastic Voyage of its protagonist through the ruins of the world, but does not depict the actual moment of devastation; the film version, The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), is set in New York at the time of the Disaster.

The present tense of plague may seem too dreadful to dwell upon, though it palpably infects the background of a work like Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), and is of course the central concern of The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus (1913-1960). But it must be said that the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which meets medical criteria for a real-life pandemic, hardly figures in sf narratives. Most twentieth-century Disaster tales where Pandemics are central, like Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (1915) or George R Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), tend to be set in Post-Holocaust or even Ruined Earth venues long after the disease has taken its course, with the catastrophe described in retrospect. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954) may be the first significant example of Vampire-creation through a worldwide Pandemic rather than through supernatural means, and is told as it happens. Robert Moore Williams's The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles (1961) deals similarly with Zombies. Algis Budrys's Some Will Not Die (1961) and Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1969) envisage more straightforward assaults upon the world. Stephen King's The Stand (cut from manuscript 1978; text largely restored and rev 1990) uses its Pandemic as the incipit for a vast metaphysical drama. Tales where the main effect of a Pandemic is to create a Zombie Apocalypse have tended to focus on the Monsters, with the disease itself an unexplained background pretext for Horror in SF. The film 28 Days Later (2002), where chimpanzees are the originating vector, is however an honourable zombie successor to Matheson's handling of the vampire plague. Technothrillers, often set in Cold War frames, normally shy short of describing genuine Pandemics but focus more on engineered diseases, as in Frank G Slaughter's Epidemic! (1961), where Communists infect New York, or the not-dissimilar Contagion (1996) by Robin Cook; stories of this sort, which often climax in the deep-sixing of a poison phial in order to save the world, are not cited in this encyclopedia as Pandemic tales.

In more recent years, Pandemics frequently serve – along with Ecological degradation, Pollution, Climate Change and World War Three – as markers that something terrible has happened to the planet, but without much attention being paid to the nature of the epidemic in question. James Tiptree Jr's "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" (revised text in Author's Choice 4, anth 1974, edited by Harry Harrison) gains its terrifying potency not through any description of the nature of the disease, but by placing the End of the World in the present tense. The reminiscences of AIDS in the wildly proliferating contagion at the heart of Thomas M Disch's The MD: A Horror Story (1991) add horror by association, not through any epidemiological focus. The profound cultural despair that infuses Elizabeth Hand's Glimmering (1997; rev 2012) is shaped by an omnipresent Pandemic; Samanta Schweblin's slightly later Fever Dream (2014) similarly depicts the debilitation of the world through a cocktail of pesticides whose effect is of a contagion. In Margaret Atwood's Oryx sequence beginning with Oryx and Crake (2003) human civilization is successfully terminated through an equally undescribed plague designed by a Superman-cum-Villain. Pandemics that leave behind shattered remnant-cultures – like Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven (2014) or Marcus Sedgwick's Snowflake, AZ (2019), to instance two of many examples – are not usually themselves paid much attention, stories of this sort normally focusing on their aftermath settings. Ruined Earth tales may refer to long-ago civilization-ending Disasters, including Climate Change, War and Pandemic; they are not cited here, or only in passing. At least two recent films set in the Near FutureLittle Fish (2020) directed by Chad Hartigan and Apples (2020) directed by Christos Nikou – treat contagious Amnesia specifically as a form of pandemic.

The film Contagion (2011) is remarkable for its accurate Prediction of the effects of something very like the coronavirus Covid-19 that afflicted the planet in 2020 (see Medicine), paying close attention throughout to the etiology and unfolding of the (then fictional) disease itself; it also eschews the blame games typical of Genre SF. An effective documentary-like thriller published as the real-world plague began to grip is The End of October (2020) by Lawrence Wright.

In this encyclopedia the term Pandemic is used when at least some of the following conditions are met:

  • 1 The disease is planetary.
  • 2 It is highly infectious, possibly zoonotic, easily transmitted.
  • 3 Though the disease may be plausibly described, it will be transformed from any current affliction.
  • 4 It starts in one place, but as it is new to the rest of the planet infection travels like the wind.
  • 5 It kills or transforms its victims.
  • 6 Protagonists may be immune, but almost no one else.
  • 7 The devastation is planet-wide, so unless an Alternate History is being depicted the tale will be set in the Near Future.
  • 8 There is no defense until one is found.
  • 9 The world does not return to normal.


see also: Grey Goo; Pandemic [game].

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