Thoughts About Fiction in the Time of COVID-19

A few months ago, I read the latest novel from the thoughtful sci-fi author Mike Chen, A Beginning at the End. I won’t go into too much detail about it, but if I were to describe it in a very brief synopsis, it follows three adults from different paths of life and how they all find themselves coming together, in the aftermath of – wait for it it – a global pandemic.

At the time I read it, the first few cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. were just being confirmed, and little did I expect then to become quickly familiar with terminology like “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place” nor had I ever expect for the U.S. to have the highest number of cases in two short months.

Of all the things that we think about when we look at them through the lens of the current crisis at hand, fiction is definitely an interesting one. When we look at fiction released in the past where a similar crisis occurs, we consider what has made the mark and what hasn’t. When we writers consider the writing that we are doing nowadays, the plot that we are working on suddenly appears a little different when looked at through this lens.

Halimah Marcus, the executive director of Electric Literature, recently conducted a dialogue with renowned sci-fi author Ted Chiang about what could possibly be ahead for us once the curve is flattened, the shelter-in-place orders are lifted, and a vaccine is at long last created. While it’s worth reading the whole thing, two observations that stood out to me is that 1. if the COVID-19 crisis were a novel, it would only be partly a disaster novel and 2. we need to be mindful about what we mean when we say we want things to return back to “normal.” Those are very important thoughts to keep in mind in the larger context of the situation, for it magnifies who is responsible for letting it get to this point and how dangerous it could actually be if we were to simply resume to how things once were.

In a lot of ways, it feels like an apocalypse or an apocalyptic-type situation has been a long time coming. In the early 2010’s, for whatever reason, pop culture was really keen on portraying the most undesirable futures possible; from TV shows like “The Walking Dead” to the books and film adaptations of The Hunger Games trilogy. However, as Laurie Penny put it in a piece written for Wired, none of us have expected nor prepared for this kind of crisis to take form in the one we now find ourselves in. It’s impossible to live out our Matrix fantasies when we are forced to social distance and stay home by any means necessary.

Even though there is a global crisis going on, we writers still need to write, but even that has proven to be difficult depending on when the story is set. This is elaborated more in-depth when author Ben Winters wrote in a piece for Slate about how suddenly, the idea of his characters hanging out in the year 2020 is unrealistic when we are instructed to social distance.  He realizes he has choices he needs to make if he wants to stay true to the reality of the era; whether that means bumping back the events to 2019 and/or moving a lot of the social interactions to virtual spaces – and those kind of interactions just aren’t as interesting to write as opposed to the in-person kind.

For me, it’s a mix between writing new stories in the era of COVID-19 and how the current crisis affects writing I’ve been working on well beforehand. I recently wrote a short screenplay about two estranged siblings reconnecting via Skype during the crisis. I’ve already been submitting it to two different places and I can only imagine the number of other opportunities that will open up as time goes on.

Much like Winters, the crisis is already having me evaluate potential decisions I am facing with my own novel I’m working on, and it’s set in the late 2060’s. The optimistic future that this work and An Absolute Mind are set in are a result of changes that I would like to see happen, so that they’re available for future generations. While I’ve never thought too much about how our present day would get to how the world is in this fictitious future of my creation, I always knew that it would probably take a big event, if not several big events, for the world to realize that several changes absolutely need to be made if we want to be better off in the decades and centuries to come. So if that means making mentions to COVID-19 in my novel-in-progress, then I am more than willing to do just that.

Fiction may be just a combustion of philosophies, what-if realities, and life-influenced ideas consumed on a page or screen, but that doesn’t mean it lacks the potential to either be analytical of real world circumstances or be influenced by it. It may not always be entirely accurate (because it’s fiction), but it can help us think deeper about our realities. I think that that’s the general reason why we as humans sometimes rely on fiction for answers.

If you are able to, I hope you can go support me in all that I do by leaving a tip over on Ko-fi. I do a lot of writing that I get paid very little for or not at all, and so this is a way of showing your support other than just reading my content. Donations of varying quantities and frequencies are greatly appreciated.


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