Apocalypse and Pandemic Literature, TV & Film in the Era of COVID-19

Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

In this episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, interviews Chris Fan, assistant professor of English and science fiction expert, about pandemic literature, TV and film.

Tyrus Miller (0:04–0:22): Hello everyone! Thanks for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr. Christopher Fan, a literary scholar in our Department of English. Hi, Chris!

Chris Fan (0:22–0:24): Hi Tyrus! How are you doing?

Miller (0:24–0:27): Good. Thanks for being with us.

Fan (0:27–0:29): Thanks for having me.

Miller (0:29–1:20): We’re going to be discussing today science fiction across media and maybe a little bit across some of the history as well, but literature, television, film, and how and why it’s resonating so much with people today. It’s a genre that people use to imagine the future, perhaps in times that are especially crazy, it actually maybe gives some insight. Even the sort of wild speculative side gives some insight into a changed reality or a possible reality. So I wanted to start just by asking what you’ve noticed in terms of how people are engaging with science fiction these days.

Fan (1:20–3:26): Absolutely. This is a really weird time and I think that there are some sort of historical precedents, if not in living memory, then at least in recent memory. There’s often reference to the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 as a possible model for what is happening right now, but I think that the role that science fiction and speculative fiction are playing for people these days is — it’s not so much even looking into the future, and this is all sort of from my not very scientific but anecdotal conversations with friends and colleagues and what they’ve been looking for and how they’ve been reacting to science fiction and speculative fiction recently.

But it seems like the reason that they’re turning to these genres is not so much for a glimpse into a distant future but to sort of figure out what’s going on right now. What sort of crisis is this? Obviously, it’s a public health crisis. It’s a pandemic. It’s global in proportion, but it’s also an economic crisis. It’s a crisis that reveals the flaws in various social systems and in governmental structures that we have. It reveals inequalities. And so I think figuring out what kind of crisis this is is something that speculative fiction and science fiction can offer insight into. And so I found that folks are not so much looking, again, for the distant future to see where we’re going after this this whole thing blows over but they’re sort of looking into, like, 30 seconds into the future, if you’re even into the future at all. Just looking at what’s happening right now and I feel like —

Miller (3:26–3:28): Like a diagnostic lens?

Fan (3:29–5:12): Yeah, there’s a diagnostic desire, I think, that speculative fiction and science fiction can address right now. And I think over the past twenty years or so, as cultural critics and literary critics have turned to science fiction and speculative fiction more frequently, I think a lot of the reason why they’re doing that is because it helps to provide a vocabulary or a set of narratives and stories for thinking about crises that are happening in our midst. So the War on Terror, the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. I think how to think about and process these crises that are larger than we can really comprehend is a reason why folks have turned to science fiction and speculative fiction recently. But I think a lot of the reason in those past crises why people have turned to those genres is because they’re trying to figure out what just happened. They’re sort of looking back and figuring out what sort of narratives, what sort of vocabularies or tropes can help us understand what just happened. But again, I think that folks right now are looking at science fiction and speculative fiction to figure out what’s happening right now in our midst because it’s so different. This crisis is so multifaceted. It’s so all-encompassing. It seems to go so far beyond the coronavirus or COVID-19 that folks are just trying to take the measure and figure out what the proportion of anxiety should be for them.

Miller (5:12–5:50): That’s a really important point. And we’ve heard over and over again language about unprecedented, unimaginable, and so forth and I would say generally about art but also I would say this specifically about science fiction and other related literary genres is it actually helps us experience something that is not really directly graspable by our experience. It attaches it to stories and images and characters and events that allow us to get some kind of imaginative hold on those.

Fan (5:50–9:10): Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, trying to figure out in this sort of diagnostic mode what is actually happening to us. It’s really important for us to find frameworks, and that’s why we turn to genre because there is a kind of predictable framework for what is happening, why it’s happening, what might happen next. And so science fiction obviously is really useful for that. And I don’t have any sort of scientific or technical way to figure out what folks are watching or reading right now or sort of what the trends are lately, but just anecdotally speaking, I think that, as I said before, my friends and colleagues and family members have been turning disproportionately to science fiction and speculative fiction for the metaphors that they use to talk about what’s happening right now, even though they might be going to Netflix and watching “Tiger King” or “Ozark” or something like that, right?

I think that there was a recent survey that showed that Americans have been watching or streaming eight hours of television every day since the pandemic started, or the shelter in place orders started coming down in the United States. And I’m not sure how much of that is science fiction or speculative fiction but it’s very clear that folks are turning to their genres when they think about this period that we’re in right now. And I think it’s precisely because as genres, they have these frameworks and sort of determinative outlines for the stories that they generate, that there’s a kind of comfort in it or there’s at least a kind of baseline for cognitively wrapping your mind around this thing that is so sort of amorphous.

And one other point that I would make is that I think that a lot of the reason why speculative fiction and science fiction are so useful right now, maybe I shouldn’t say useful, but our attention goes to them so quickly now is because we don’t have a lot of testing in the United States and so to a large extent we’re flying blind. And so there’s this sort of amorphous threat out there. We don’t know. We know that it’s deadly. We know that it’s contagious. We don’t know how deadly, we don’t know how contagious it is. In fact, we have no sort of scientific way of figuring out the answers to those questions, and so I think that these various models for, or stories about just how bad it could possibly be, or perhaps even just how manageable it could be, how we can survive in a way that might be meaningful to us. I think those are really attractive things. But there’s this sort of wide range of narrative possibilities that we’re sort of turning to right now, that we’re experiencing precisely because we don’t have testing. We don’t know what’s going on.

Miller (9:10–10:26): You’re almost reminding me of a definition of contemporary myth, where sort of uncontrolled forces, unnamed invisible forces, are somehow given names and images and stories that get attached to them. I did want to actually pick up another point. This was actually something that we discussed in the interview with Victoria Johnson about just the way in which people are forming new forms of community or reviving forms of community around television watching and series of streaming content and I wonder if you have any examples or instances that you could point to. I know that science fiction is something where people are really passionate about it and there are buffs and there are clubs and there are communities and people share books and recommendations. I just wonder if you have any observations about the way in which that kind of communication and community is being organized in the pandemic around reading or consuming media versions of science fiction.

Fan (10:26–14:46): Yeah, sure. There’s a couple of things. One is that I think this kind of genre of article or blog posts that’s been really prevalent throughout this period has been a version of the listicle, or an article that has a list of things often ranked but geared towards pandemic, just like this interview, pandemic literature, film and television, sort of play. What are the novels or television shows or films that people are turning to or that have most accurately predicted our moment? And so I think that those listicles are, the reason that they’re so prevalent and the reason that they’re so sort of widely and quickly consumed is because of what I was saying before. Everybody wants to know what’s happening right now. Everybody wants to know what’s going to happen in the next month or two. I think especially now as various governors and municipal leaders are sort of calling for the relaxation of social distancing measures, we want to know what, to an extent, we know what the implications of that are going to be. We know what the consequences of that are going to be, but we don’t quite know, right?

We know it’s a bad idea, but we don’t know quite how bad of an idea it is. And so I think the listicle just sort of provides this sort of ready-at-hand list or number of science fiction and speculative fiction examples that might help us figure out how bad it could be or how not bad it could possibly be. But in terms of watching and consuming these things together, I don’t think that I knew about these apps like Netflix Party that facilitated watching a Netflix movie simultaneously and chatting at the same time before this pandemic started.

But apparently there’s a proliferation of these kinds of apps where you can watch things simultaneously. And if you think about it, why would you actually need, you could just pick up the phone or text or say, “Hey, let’s just watch the same movie at the same time,” right? But I think that a reason that these apps are so popular right now and the reason that there are so many of them is because there’s a real value in the simultaneity, right? It’s the thing that if you’re literally watching the same stream at the same time and you’re in the same chat channel, then that more closely resembles the kind of in-person interaction as opposed to just saying “one, two, three, hit play,” right?

There’s something that mimics the in-person interaction that we’re all sort of desiring right now. My kids, every Friday, they have a movie night with their friends and they do that. They load up the Netflix Party. Last week, it was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the live-action movie from 1990. They weren’t super into that but they watched it, they’re chatting with their friends and they really enjoyed it. But in terms of the kind of simultaneous consumption in science fiction communities, I feel like there hasn’t been a sort of unique kind of institution that’s formed during this period. I think part of the reason for that is because science fiction is just so at the front of everybody’s minds right now that, just, you know, public discourse is the place where science fiction writers have been sort of airing their views and talking. So they don’t need their sort of niche communities or forums at this moment because this world is, in many ways, science fictional and in many ways it undermines the second part of that phrase, the fiction part, right?

Miller (14:46–15:43): Yeah, turning on the news often resembles one of those kind of B-grade movies of the ’50s or something. Well, speaking of kind of earlier periods, I think that we have been reminded of lots of historical instances in which, in many ways, plagues and pestilences and epidemics have really accompanied the history of literature all the way back to classical antiquity and through the Black Plagues of the Middle Ages and way into modernity, and I just wondered if you had any observations about any earlier literature that could be seen not necessarily as a precursor to science fiction but are dealing maybe with some of the same issues and themes that you see in the contemporary science fiction.

Fan (15:44–19:39): Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, plague and pestilence have been, we remember the Biblical narratives of the plague in Egypt and it’s been a recurring trope, a narrative throughout human history, since the dawn of man, let’s say. But the texts that have really come up frequently during this period are texts like Daniel Defoe’s Diary of the Plague Year, Albert Camus’ novel The Plague that was published in 1947 is one that a number of articles, I think I’ve seen half a dozen articles that have been written about The Plague. And The Plague is a really interesting novel to go to right now because in a lot of ways it does fulfill that kind of predictive function that we’re asking our science fiction and speculative fiction to fulfill these days, and yet it wasn’t written as a science fiction or speculative fiction novel. It was written as an allegory for various occupations — French occupation of Algeria, of the Nazi occupation of France — but the way that Camus wrote the novel, it very much fits the mold of science fiction in so far as he did a lot of research into plagues throughout European history, especially, and the way that the plague unfolds in the novel follows the sort of best of epidemiological knowledge at that point.

The narrator is, not to give anything away because you find this out in the last few pages of the novel, the narrator is a person who recounts the events in this sort of historical way, throughout the novel, is the doctor who leads the efforts in this this coastal Algerian city of Oran to sort of grapple with the plague outbreak in that town. And so you get the perspective of a doctor, you get this very medical or scientific perspective and if you read the novel now, I mean, just from the first 10 or 15 pages, it’ll start to sound like a news report or a testimonial from 2020 in any part of the United States. There’s the denial. The officials don’t want to call it plague, but the medical and epidemiological reality is right there in front of them. They know exactly what’s going to happen. And then the lockdown comes and there is the sort of denial among the populace that this lockdown is actually happening. There’s a sort of grappling with what that actually means for them practically speaking, economically, what that means for them ethically, what that means for them emotionally, and that’s what unfolds through the novel and at the end of the novel, they emerge from the plague and and it dies out, but I think that if anybody wants an idea of, not just sort of in this kind of detached scientific way, what’s going to happen in the next year or so but sort of from an emotional and ethical perspective, the kinds of dilemmas, the kinds of conflicts that people are going to be grappling with, The Plague is an excellent resource for that. So it’s a science fiction that sort of reflects upon and helps us engage with the moral and ethical side of scientifically and medically dominated experience.

Miller (19:39–22:14): That’s a great point about The Plague and I would also just add that there’s an important focus in The Plague on the question of moral decisions that we have to make. What responsibilities do we have for one another? What is essential when many of the things that we take for granted as our normal activity and our defining activity can’t be taken for granted, what kinds of things do we see as essential? And I think it gives us a way also of understanding in some ways, even in the more entertainment-oriented science fiction, there’s often a background of these very, very serious existential and moral and political questions.

I wanted just to bring up an example from my own childhood reading, actually. The book by Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain, which is, I believe, 1970s, mid-seventies, and that has a very interesting situation of an epidemic that is caused by something, a sample that’s taken from outer space and it breaks out in, I think, a Texas town, and the only survivors are a baby and an old alcoholic homeless man. And there’s this question of, why these two and what’s the connection? And I think that there’s a lot, especially in epidemic, but maybe more generally in science fiction, there’s often this kind of question of, who gets selected? Who gets the aid and on what basis? And of course, there’s lots of opportunity for political satire and moral allegory. And also, of course, for various reactionary and racist hypotheses about why these things happen, but also in a certain way a kind of imagination of impossible connections of community and solidarity — an old alcoholic man and a baby. If that’s a sort of image of a new form of community, what’s the connection? What’s the basis? I wonder if you have any observations about that notion that there is also this kind of projection of new forms of connection and community.

Fan (22:14–26:55): Yeah, absolutely. So, that example of The Andromeda Strain and the question of who survives is one that’s very relevant right now because we have, not only in terms of those who survive and succumb to COVID-19, but also there’s this new social distinction that’s going to emerge which is between the immune, right, and the vulnerable.

Of course, we don’t actually know the degree to which those who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19 are in fact immune to it. There are some cases in which people have been purportedly reinfected with the coronavirus, but it does seem likely that this social distinction, which is going to be an economic distinction too because those who are immune are going to be able to go back to work. There are different forms of community that are going to be formed along the kind of sorting mechanisms that this pandemic produces, right? And so I think that, and this gets back to that question of what kind of crisis is this. So if it’s purely at the level of biology then we have this kind of Darwinian principle, and even there, we’re not really sure what counts as the vulnerable population and what doesn’t. It seems like perfectly healthy individuals have been succumbing to this virus.

But there is a kind of Darwinian principle at work if the crisis is purely biological. But because it’s so multi-faceted, because it has to do with our healthcare system, because it has to do with geopolitics, because it has to do with the relationships and intentions between state, municipalities, and the federal government, there’s this multifaceted set of sorting mechanisms that is occurring right now. And so there are different forms of sociality that are being created and destroyed almost on a weekly basis. When I go ride my bike in certain areas of Orange County right now, sometimes I see people riding in groups or I see groups of people that are probably not related, large groups of people that are still gathering and so those are forms of sociality that now have this kind of moral dimension to them, right? These people made the choice, knowing what they know about social distancing measures, to nonetheless gather, right?

When I go ride my bike in certain areas of Orange County right now, sometimes I see people riding in groups or I see groups of people that are probably not related, large groups of people that are still gathering and so those are forms of sociality that now have this kind of moral dimension to them, right? These people made the choice, knowing what they know about social distancing measures, to nonetheless gather, right?

So there’s something sort of transgressive, something also sort of violent towards the community, that’s happening as a result of that form of sociality and so that’s one of the things that we’re just really eager to figure out, right? What does social interaction look like now? What is it going to look like in the future? Because we’ve been, as you were saying before you hit record, there’s this kind of scramble that we as faculty members have been doing because this all began at the beginning of the spring quarter, right? So there’s a sort of scramble to figure out the sociality of the online classroom, right? And Zoom is one form of this and we all have various levels of tolerance for these kinds of online interactions, especially Zoom. So we’re figuring that out but once that dies out once, once the quarter ends, then the summer begins, right? And we don’t know what kind of sociality is going to emerge as dominant then, or what kinds that we’re going to be turning to. So I think that a lot of speculative fiction helps us or provides models for this. And we could talk about different examples of this but I think that how we relate as human beings and what is going to determine how we relate as human beings is one of those main questions and speculative fiction and science fiction are two genres that are able to answer that in a direct way, if imaginatively.

Miller (26:55–27:15): So just on a brief concluding question: Any speculations you want to share about what we might expect in terms of fiction that deals with the current pandemic situation or maybe even something that’s already being written and published that you’re starting to see?

Fan (27:15–29:59): That’s a really good question. I’m not sure if there’s going to be much pandemic fiction or film that’s going to be coming out in the near future. The thing about predictions is that they always make you look ridiculous, but it just seems to me, going off of the definition of science fiction that the critic Darko Suvin offered, that science fiction is the genre of cognitive estrangement, that it is a genre that takes a scientific principle and brings it just far enough that we’re estranged from it, that it becomes defamiliarized and yet still strangely familiar, right? So we can sort of cognitively make the leap from where we are right now to where the science fiction narrative is. I’m not sure that pandemic fiction or film will be able to generate enough estrangement from this point on, at least in the near future, right? It’s possible that we might have fiction or film that speculates upon the kinds of sociality and the sort of sorting and social distinctions that are going to be generated by the pandemic. For instance, as I was talking about before, the distinction between the immune and the vulnerable. I mean, what a science fiction trope, right? Having sort of COVID-immune passports that you walk around with and you’re tagged in some sort of way?

Hey, if that isn’t science fictional, I don’t know what is. But I feel like, you know, feeling out what exactly those distinctions are and what life is going to be like once society is sorted out by the violent domineering principle of COVID-19, I think is going to be something, an urgent topic. And right now some of our best science fiction and speculative fiction writers are the sort of epidemiologists, like the Anthony Faucis who need to start speculating months into the future. Sometimes, it’s not even clear, they can possibly speculate years into the future, but at least months into the future and to sort of prepare now for the science fiction reality that’s emerging in our midst right now.

Miller (30:00): Well, thank you for the wonderful conversation and for sharing your expertise and experience with us. Now, let me thank our viewers, and I will say that we want to see you all in our next episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” Thanks so much, Chris!

Fan (30:18–10:20): Thanks, Tyrus!

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The official account of the UCI School of Humanities: Ideas that Matter.

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