5 Contagion Novels to Read While Sheltering at Home

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

In our literary diet, in this sudden age of global fear and uncertainty, some of us might prefer escapism from words like “pandemic” and “virology.” Others seek out novels that confront, sometimes with uncanny prescience, the headlines mounting daily. Here’s a selection of five books, from the ’80s to 2020, that tackle global viruses and their repercussions.

Robin Cook, dean of the contemporary medical thriller, published Outbreak in 1987. Though the novel shares no relation to the disturbing 1995 movie of the same name (which is newly available on Netflix, by the way), it is an immaculately researched speculative fiction that resonates with our conspiratorial zeitgeist. Its protagonist, CDC doctor Melissa Blumenthal, is tasked with solving the mystery of a Los Angeles physician who succumbs, along with his patients, to a sudden, contagious and untreatable virus. When other medical professionals around the globe fall victim to the same curious ailment, Dr. Blumenthal is led down a rabbit hole involving sabotage and a shadowy cabal (is there any other kind of cabal?)

Pandemic, also by Robin Cook, was published in 2018, and updates his medical-malfeasance mindset to today’s reality of gene editing. Longtime medical examiner Jack Stapleton is the hero of this timely effort, which begins with a young and seemingly healthy woman collapsing on the New York City subway and dying at the hospital soon after. As similar deaths multiply, all from unlikely victims, Jack realizes he may be confronting a contagion on par with the 1918 flu pandemic, one that involves an unethical exploitation of the CRISPR gene-editing technology.

Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science-fiction novel of 2015, is set 20 years after a swine-flu pandemic known as the “Georgia flu” has wiped out 99 percent of the Earth. COVID-19, this ain’t: Most people who contract Mandel’s imagined virus die within two days, and the author paints a frightening portrait of civilizational collapse, as the Internet, gasoline and electricity go the way of the dodo, and strong-horsepowered pickup trucks are driven, literally, by horses. But Mandel focuses on the human element as much as the granular details, unearthing buried mysteries involving a nomadic troupe of Shakespearean actors keeping the Bard’s legacy alive for culture-hungry survivors.

Severance, the debut novel from Chinese-American author Ling Ma, won the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction on the strength of its deft balance of sci-fi and corporate satire. The Shen Fever—which started in Shenzhen, China before boomeranging around the globe through microscopic fungal spores—has impacted much of the population of New York City, causing infected people to compulsively repeat old routines, like nostalgic zombies (and, come to think of it, much like the zombies in Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 film “The Dead Don’t Die”). The unlikely hero, an unfulfilled publishing-house drone named Candance Chen, documents life in the slow apocalypse on a blog titled NY Ghost. If you want some sardonic humor to go along with your dose of Armageddon reality, Severance is your novel is choice.

And here’s one for preorder: Investigative journalist Lawrence Wright, whose prizewinning books include the Scientology exposé Going Clear, releases his novel The End of October in May, and early reviews have noted its eerie prescience to our current crisis. Wright imagines an epidemiologist, Dr. Henry Parsons, who is summoned to an internment camp in Indonesia where 47 people have died of acute hemorrhagic fever. He learns that a man infected with the disease is en route to the annual hajj to Mecca, which causes this isolated virus to spread across the globe. Inevitably, this includes the United States, where the population is decimated, and political, scientific and religious institutions crumble. Ever the dexterous reporter, Wright intersperses his fictional narrative with documented research on the history of viral diseases, making his book both a primer and a worst-case-scenario forecast of our present moment.