Science Fiction and the Coronavirus

Science fiction foresaw the exploration of space, under the sea, and of future societies, among so many things. But did it ever come near producing a story about the way we’re living now with the coronavirus?

Well, not exactly. But SF never has really been in the prediction business. It’s more a template for trying out ideas and concepts to see how they might (or might not) work out. Often, SF is a warning, to avoid certain possible futures. Ray Bradbury certainly never wanted books burned, as in his Fahrenheit 451. George Orwell never wanted the world he depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nor did Neville Shute want us to end up as did his characters in On the Beach.

In his lifetime, Isaac Asimov published nearly 500 books including 30 or so SF novels and hundreds of short stories. He said himself that he only made two predictions that came true, both accidents. In one story, he had a space-suited man “space walking,” as it is now called, and enjoying the kind of euphoria that astronauts later described feeling. In another, he had a character whip out a hand-held computer. That was about it, he said.

Still, SF has given us some scenarios on ways we might deal with our situation today.

One actually was an Asimov novel, The Naked Sun (1956), the second of his future mystery/SF novels pairing human detective Elijah Baley with robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw. This whodunit takes place on the planet Solaria, where every inhabitant lives in isolation, or only with a spouse, on huge estates maintained by robots. The only physical contact is when procreation, while distasteful, becomes necessary to maintain the planet’s controlled population. Otherwise, everybody communicates by viewing holographs of other people, much as we are now doing with iPhone face-times or apps such as Zoom.

Since the Solarians have a horror of face-to-face contact, Baley and Daneel face a few obstacles in investigating suspects and solving their murder mystery.

H. G. Wells, one of the originators of what we now call science fiction, predicted lots of future events (with some accuracy) including a deadly pandemic in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), adapted as an early SF movie, Things to Come, in 1936. Wells also foresaw the coming of World War II, but his version had the combatants succumbing to exhaustion, the plague, and having to rebuild civilization all over again.

Wells book was written as a fictional future history—no plot, no characters. But when he scripted the movie version, he created generations of figures to act out his plotline. Both the book and movie tell of a “wandering sickness” where those infected wander mindlessly, infecting others, until they die. In the movie, warlords eventually call for shooting all the wandering sickness victims to wipe out the disease. Hopefully, we won’t come to that.

Even before Wells, Mary Shelley (author of arguably the first SF book, Frankenstein) wrote The Last Man (1826), envisioning a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by plague at the end of the 21st century. American survivors invade Europe, and humanity all but goes extinct. In the end, the “last man” is seen floating away from Britain in a small boat—not unlike Victor Frankenstein’s creature floating away on an iceberg in that story eight years earlier.

John W. Campbell Jr., known mainly as a key SF editor, capped the writing part of his career with a novella titled “Who Goes There?” (1938). Its first movie adaptation (The Thing from Another World, 1951) left out a key element of the story that subsequent movie versions of the story kept—that the extraterrestrial creature could recreate the humans it killed as almost-perfect duplicates. The actual humans, stranded at a remote research facility, must find a way to tell who among their number is “infected” and a menace to them.

Chris Carter cited the concept for his 1993 X-Files episode, Ice, where a similar alien has even Mulder and Scully wondering if each has been infected.

I Am Legend (1954), an early novel by Richard Matheson who became a legendary writer himself, envisioned one human survivor of a world-wide vampire plague. It was another situation where no one could be sure the person next to him wasn’t infected and about to turn on him. Also adapted for several movies (all varying somewhat from the original plot), the hero realizes finally that he is a villainous scourge to the new society of vampires that now inhabits the Earth. (This was also an inspiration for the zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, 1964.)

Probably the most influential of the stories of not knowing whether you can believe the person next to you is human is Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers. This time, seed pods from space have the ability to eliminate and replace humans almost perfectly. It has been adapted for film four times, starting with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and the concept has been used in other movies from The Faculty (1998, kind of a combination of The Body Snatchers and The Thing) to Strange Invaders (1983). Finney’s story is the most adapted and imitated of them all.

But it was not the first. Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951), this time with parasites from space latching onto and controlling humans, preceded it. In this novel, people have to stay nearly naked to prove they have no alien host hooked onto them. The movie, Invaders from Mars (1953; remade in 1986), had a similar theme—invaders who infected and controlled humans with an injected device.

And who can forget the eighth episode of The Twilight Zone TV series, “Time Enough at Last,” adapted from John Braham’s short story by Rod Serling, where Burgess Meredith plays Earth’s only survivor of a nuclear war?

Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) also depict what effect a new disease might have on humankind. The list goes on. While SF may not have come up with the exact scenario that the coronavirus has produced, it has given us lots of warnings and hints.

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