Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pandemic Week

For those who have missed our earlier reviews, a summary can be found here.

The number of titles that you can associate with pandemic fiction is enormous.  There are far more titles than I will ever get to. Not are there only post-apocalyptic, and apocalypse-in-progress novels with a pandemic primary agent, but you also have an enormous list of historical fiction, medical thrillers novels, and non-fiction offerings. Goodreads has an excellent summary list that gives a hint at the breadth of the offerings.

I am going to start by covering some of the novels we have already reviewed.

Steven Konkoly's Jakarta Pandemic, Carla Buckley The Things That Keep Us Here, Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming, Honey Brown's Red Queen, John Grit's Apocalyptic Law, Sigrid Nunez's Salvation City, James Van Pelt's Summer of the Apocalypse, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, Vivi Andrew's Reawakening Eden. Of these there are couple of varieties

The first type of novel you might run into could be called the pandemic thriller. At the start of the book, there is either no pandemic, or it is just getting started in some exotic far off location.   In some novels, there is a period when they are trying to contain the potential pandemic.  If they fail, or if the attempt is made off stage (and thus fails) it becomes a pandemic apocalypse-in-progress novel.   Jakarta Pandemic, The Things That Keep Us Here, The Red Queen are mostly within this subset.  The pandemic thriller subset tends to play out much like a horror novel.  It may not be a page turner exactly, but the tension and feeling of doom are designed to keep you glued to your seat and reading late into the night.


Then there is a somewhat odder creature. For lack of anything better, I am going to call it the pandemic removed, or possibly  the pandemic never mind tale.  In these novels, there is a pandemic described, but it is obvious from either the location or timing of the narration, that the key character in the story is not going to die. Things We Didn't See Coming, The Pest House, Summer of the Apocalypse, Salvation City, and Apocalyptic Law fit within this subgroup.  In general, the pandemic is used as a scene changer, or explanatory device, to create a unique narrative setting without using the tropes of science fiction.
Closely related to the pandemic removed is the pandemic-past tale.  The primary distance is the remoteness of the pandemic, and general lack of concern for further breakouts.  You get your scene change without the dying all over.   Reawakening Eden fits in this category.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is the pandemic apocalypse-in-progress science fiction story first published in 1826.  It is as far as I know, the second apocalyptic novel written (after Le Dernier Homme English: The Last Man)), and depending on your definitions, the second science fiction novel if you take her novel Frankenstein to be the first.

I decided against reviewing it.   A typical sample follows:
Never shall I see them more. I am bereft of their dear converse -bereft of sight of them. I am a tree rent by lightning; never will the bark close over the bared fibres-never will their quivering life, torn by the winds, receive the opiate of a moment's balm. I am alone in the world-but that expression as yet was less pregnant with misery, than that Adrian and Clara are dead.
The tide of thought and feeling rolls on for ever the same, though the banks and shapes around, which govern its course, and the reflection in the wave, vary. Thus the sentiment of immediate loss in some sort decayed, while that of utter, irremediable loneliness grew on me with time. Three days I wandered through Ravenna-now thinking only of the beloved beings who slept in the oozy caves of ocean-now looking forward on the dread blank before me; shuddering to make an onward step-writhing at each change that marked the progress of the hours.
For three days I wandered to and fro in this melancholy town. I passed whole hours in going from house to house, listening whether I could detect some lurking sign of human existence. Sometimes I rang at a bell; it tinkled through the vaulted rooms, and silence succeeded to the sound. I called myself' hopeless, yet still I hoped; and still disappointment ushered in the hours, intruding the cold, sharp steel which first pierced me, into the aching festering wound. I fed like a wild beast, which seizes its food only when stung by intolerable hunger. I did not change my garb, or seek the shelter of a roof, during all those days. Burning heats, nervous irritation, a ceaseless, but confused flow of thought, sleepless nights, and days instinct with a frenzy of agitation, possessed me during that time.
There is lots of this.  And the plague doesn’t really get rolling until the middle of the book- an excruciatingly ponderous read.  It was not well accepted when it came out, and to my mind its “popularity” of the moment resides with the fact that it was written by an early female author and Mary Shelley in particular.  The basic concepts of its themes are good, and if you stay at the thematic level, a review of the novel can make it come across as a masterpiece.  But the whole exercise is polemic (she wants England to become a Republic) and overwrought.

That the novel was not “rediscovered” until the 1960s, argues that it was not a particularly influential work either.  But first is first, and I thought it deserved mention.
Our list of pandemic works will include:

The first three are classics, and have been read by many over the years.  The next three are somewhat quirky scene-changer style works, and then we finish with a variety of here-and-now in the moment stories of horror and despair.


Odysseus said...

John Ringo's "The Last Centurion" combines a pandimic flu, with sudden "little ice age", with Hilliary Clinton as president.

Humble wife said...

Kind of makes me wish to hibernate at home.

I watched the BBC Survivors show and had the same feeling.

Something tells me that I am a pandemic gloom and doom rubbernecker...seeing what I can see-reading what I can read-then washing my hands and avoiding others for a bit! lol


russell1200 said...

In reverse order:

HW: note that Jaws was a type of horror novel, and many people did not even want to get into the bathtube after reading the book or seeing the movie. Your reaction is at least in part the intended effect. Honey Brown's Red Queen (noted above in the already reviewed books) won the Australian Horror Novel of the year - it is very tense.

O: Who would have thought that many people, Democrat and Republican, would have preferred Ms. H to our current occupant.

I have seen the Ringo book, but it sounds like there is a lot of political-style ranting cluttering it up. Have you read it? Did you like it?

Odysseus said...

I've read it and liked it but it is different.

The Last Centurion is written as one big long narrative blog post. There isn't even any actual dialog just the writers recollection of conversations.

My wife did a better review of it:

russell1200 said...

Sorry Ody, your response got captured in the "spam" section by blogger. I should have caught it sooner.

I read your wifes review: very good. The generl theme reminds me a little of Pressler's "The Profession"

Nationalizing farms would be a pretty good way to make sure we starved to death, thats for sure.

Gretchen Hummel said...

Thanks for mentioning Dreamer's Island with this group. As the author, it's nice to see it categorized with other books you deemed worthy of review.

Gretchen Hummel

russell1200 said...

Well Gretchen, I suspect that you see that the review was (by my standards) middle of the road. While I try and highlight the good points of a novel, I don't see the point in sugar coating.

However, on the plus side, my reviews do give enough information to allow people to decide for themselves. Your typical Jungian Wiccan will think I am an idiot, and say "Thats the book for me!"

Note that Kelly Robinson posted it to her master list of apocalyptic novels (she is writing a book) and that will certainly be helpful.