Covid-19: Science fiction to the rescue

Laetitia@Work #14

Hi everyone,

I hope you’re all safe and sound. My family and I are in Normandy now. We were in quarantine for two weeks during which we literally did not see another living soul (I put a lot of pasta in my suitcase as we left London—we didn’t want to be like these urbanites who spread the virus to remote places as they flee the densest areas). 

After these two weeks we were quite curious to see how our nearby Normandy village with a supermarket would be affected (it’s called Sainte-Gauburge). Even in normal times, the village doesn’t have the vibrancy of New York City’s Times Square, but this time it was really so quiet as to be unreal. It was completely empty and sickeningly silent. I’ve seen all those pictures of empty New York City, eerily empty Paris, and London streets and squares, and these satellite pictures showing the sudden drop in pollution (that’s right, if we were all dead, there’d be less pollution. How’s that reassuring?). And in proportion to Sainte-Gauburge (1,000 inhabitants) the quiet was as surreal as it gets. In the supermarket the two cashiers had masks on. There was a window pane to protect them from the customers’ droplets. There was neither toilet paper (how come that’s still a thing?) nor flour in the store (does everybody make their own bread now??). So we experienced some of what we had only read about. Weirdly true.

These very ab-normal times do not remind us of anything we know. It’s not like actual war. It’s not like a “regular” recession either. In fact, the only “familiar” reference we have is zombie movies and post-apocalyptic (doomsday) fiction, a subgenre of science fiction where the Earth’s civilisation has collapsed after some apocalyptic event (usually a nuclear holocaust, sometimes coupled with a man-made pandemic) and there are a few people left (or just one) struggling to survive in a world with the half-destroyed remains of what was “normal” in the old civilisation.

I confess that since childhood I’ve loved this genre. I’ve seen a lot of those films about apocalyptic pandemics and alien invasions. As a teenager passionate about movie history, I watched the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which is the story of an extraterrestrial invasion that begins in an ordinary, boring 1950s California town: alien plant spores have fallen from space and grow into large seed pods, in which an exact duplicate of a living human grows to replace a person after assimilating his/her memories. Naturally the duplicate is devoid of human emotion. This invasion happens very quietly. The more advanced it is, the more quiet society becomes. You can imagine how this kind of compelling story can leave a mark on the impressionable mind of a teenager.

All this leads me to the subject of this week’s ab-normal Laetitia@Work newsletter. What if today was a great time to turn to science fiction instead of the usual experts and scientists we like to turn to? Speculative fiction that deals with futuristic concepts is already all the rage in companies trying to understand the “future of work”, for example. My friend Pierre-Antoine Marti is one of the most knowledgeable people there is on the subject. He is even writing a history PhD thesis about science fiction! A few days ago, he published an op-ed in French daily Libération. And I interviewed him about science fiction, feminism and the Covid-19 crisis. Read along. 🧟‍♀️

Our Covid moment: the stuff of science fiction

“Pictures of dead cities and empty supermarket shelves coupled with the threat of an invisible virus wreaking havoc all around the world, that’s the stuff of a (bad) sci-fi movie,” writes Pierre-Antoine. He explains that epidemics have long fuelled science fiction. Even the mother of science fiction and author of Frankenstein Mary Shelley wrote a book titled The Last Man in which she imagined a deadly plague leaving only one man standing on the surface of the planet. We’re all haunted by post-apocalyptic fiction and the real stories of past plagues. I’m actually convinced these collective traumas are imprinted in our species’ psyche. Perhaps that’s why social distancing, the fear of fomites, and storing food actually feel kinda familiar.

In his op-ed, Pierre-Antoine argues there’s one work of fiction in particular that we ought to read today: Richard Matheson’s 1954 post-apocalyptic horror novel I am Legend whose latest movie adaptation featured Will Smith (in 2007). In the film, Will Smith wanders alone in the streets of the big city (New York City) struck by a deadly pandemic that turned everyone into vampire-zombies. “How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough,” says the main character in the book (how I wish I had had that quote for my “Normal is dead. But soon we’ll have new normal” newsletter!) Today we’re left very puzzled by a reality that seems quite “unrealistic”.

I am Legend the book is far more interesting than the more recent film, argues Pierre-Antoine. Neville, the main character, is busy killing “vampires” ruthlessly and systematically, and trying to understand the root causes of the pandemic. But when he’s eventually captured by the enemy, he comes to understand that he is the last member of an evil species while vampires are trying to build a “new society”. At the end he’s killed by those whose brothers and sisters he had butchered so relentlessly. In short, he embodies the transition from one civilisation to another.

Today many of us are already thinking about the new civilisation we want. President Macron said in a speech, “the day after tomorrow, when we’ve won, we won’t go back to yesterday”: there’s no knowing what he had in mind exactly, but the sentence sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it? (He too must have watched a lot of the same movies I did!). What will tomorrow’s “legend” be made of, Pierre-Antoine asks. Today we seem to see value in the work of nurses, delivery people, cashiers, and truck drivers. And we seem to value the drop in pollution and the return of the fishes in the Venice Lagoon... but is that just a momentary thing or the mark of something new?

My interview with Pierre-Antoine Marti, a PhD student whose thesis is beautifully titled “Il sera une fois…” (Once upon a future time).

(me) Post-apocalyptic fiction and in particular zombie fiction like I am Legend seem to be closely associated to the period of the Cold War. Is that really the case? And how many of these works feature a pandemic? Would that constitute a subgenre?

(P.A.M.) Social science fiction is indeed marked by the Cold War. There’s the fear of communism and the end of Western civilisation as we knew it. The zombie embodies the figure of the barbarian, the other that’s inherently frightening. That’s clearly visible in The Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Am Legend (1954), for example. What’s also typical of Cold War fiction is the atomic fear. The apocalypse comes with the explosion of nuclear bombs and the annihilation of the human race. Often, it’s after a nuclear apocalypse that an epidemic spreads, which is another way of punishing mankind for its hubris.

Little by little this type of fiction has mutated (pun intended). Today post-apocalyptic fiction is linked to climate change and climate disasters (like The Day After Tomorrow) rather than nuclear war. Yet the strength of a lot of these Cold War stories is that they remain compelling beyond the period that gave rise to them. A successful allegory isn’t dependent on its immediate context. And the great fears we have as a species remain the same.

Some of the most compelling science fiction works are John Graham Ballard’s. He was an English novelist associated with a new wave of post-apocalyptic novels. His works remain an endless source of inspiration. The Drowned World (1962), The Crystal World (1966) are two of his most iconic novels. Indeed his work was so iconic that the adjective “Ballardian” is used in English to refer to “dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments” (Collins Dictionary). I should also mention Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) which is one of the first to be concretely about environmentalism.

As for stories of pandemics, they can’t really be said to be a subgenre. Pandemics are used to advance the post-apocalyptic plot. They’re a narrative artifact. [A narrative artifact is a self-contained narrative fragment of a storyline that is separate, related or parallel to the central narrative.]

But as far as confinement is concerned, there’s a theme that’s very common in post-apocalyptic fiction. You have communities regrouping below the surface of the Earth, or people living in dire conditions who live entirely in virtual reality, as they do in Ready Player One. Interestingly, the World Health Organization recommended more video games to cope with today’s confinement. Or they live under the sea (The Abyss, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). 

Last but not least, the ultimate science fiction confinement is in space ships, of course (2001: A Space Odyssey). Quite recently the Netflix TV series Lost in Space (which is adapted from a 1960s series) featured the confinement of an entire family… which must feel quite familiar to numerous families stuck in their own house-spaceship today. But the main difference between being stuck at home and confined in a spaceship is that there’s usually a destination when you’re in a ship. You know how long you’ll travel. The challenge of today’s newly confined is to find a destination for themselves (like learning something new) in a context of complete uncertainty. Today’s confinement is a double penalty that strengthens social, cultural and economic (housing) inequalities.

Unlike most of the heroes of these sci fi classics, today’s heroes are largely the women caring for the sick and the elderly, raising their children or feeding their families. In today’s science fiction plot, being “heroic” is being part of the banality of domestic life. (And there’s a huge gender gap as the overwhelming majority of the Covid experts and politicians visible on TV and in all media are men, while the overwhelming majority of care workers are women). What can you tell me about female science fiction and fiction that offers a feministic perspective?

Today we are indeed living a moment of profound masculinity with both the “martial” and the “expert” figures associated to the Covid crisis (while the other, more feminine figures are less visible). It’s a lot like science fiction in that respect. As a genre, science fiction is largely dominated by men (the ratio may be something like 90%/10%). Not only are the subjects biased towards (what is sometimes a caricature of) masculinity, but the female characters are very limited (in short, they’re either mothers or whores).

Yet there is such a thing as feminist science fiction. First let’s not forget that the mother of science fiction (before H.G. Wells and Jules Verne professionalised science fiction as a genre) was Mary Shelley. Her Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818) reactivated the big questions posed by our old myths through the lens of industrial revolution science. And it’s become an iconic classic. 

Then the 1970s came along and installed more women in that male landscape. In her landmark Women of Wonder: Science-fiction Stories by Women about Women (1975), Pamela Sargent can be said to have made female science fiction suddenly visible. The book is a comprehensive analysis of women in the genre (both as writers and characters). In it, she discusses Mary Shelley, and also the women characters in science fiction stereotyped by writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, or Isaac Asimov. She explains that changes will happen in the genre if readers are vocal about wanting different perspectives.

Sargent’s Shore of Women is a feminist novel whose story takes place after a devastating nuclear war. In that story, women gain the upper hand and expel men from the large cities they build. (In the end, women and men get closer and are equal). Interestingly, unlike the old female science fiction authors who fell prey to the same stereotypes as their male counterparts, Sargent and the other female writers of her generation—another leading figure is Ursula Le Guin—write with a different sensitivity and do away with the stereotypes of their predecessors. Sargent, for example, even has characters who change sex.

Alas, the 1980s come with a backlash. Cyberpunk basically applies the tech world’s “bro culture” to science fiction. Women aren’t given any space in that subgenre. Indeed even as characters they are featured again as stereotypes.

What about today’s female authors in science fiction? My intuition is that science fiction now permeates all literature and there are many women writers who write science fiction without identifying as science fiction authors. 

Yes, Margaret Atwood who could be said to be one of the greatest science fiction writers alive doesn’t identify as a science fiction writer. She wants her work to be seen as just “literature”, not science fiction. Many of today’s writers read science fiction voraciously in their youth but don’t identify with the genre as writers. Because there is still “a whiff of genre snobbery” at play here. But there are also female writers who identify as science fiction writers, like Catherine Dufour and Elisabeth Vonaburg, for example.

It’s true that science fiction is overflowing into “regular” literature. It’s everywhere. There is no strict limit anymore. All the narrative artifacts and themes of science fiction are used by all kinds of writers. Perhaps that’s science fiction’s ultimate victory.

One last question. What are the two science fiction books you would recommend? A lot of people want to read more these days 📚

Besides I Am Legend which I’ve mentioned a lot in this interview, I’d like to recommend Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952), which is a fascinating book that tells the story of mankind getting replaced by a breed of intelligent superdogs (less intellectual and more empathetic than humans). The book aims to tackle the theme of radical otherness and makes readers reflect upon what it is that we need to change radically if we want our species to have a future.

The second is A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller Jr., a post-apocalyptic novel set in a monastery in the desert in the US after a devastating nuclear war. It spans thousands of years as civilisation rebuilds itself… and makes the same mistakes again. There are few books that offer such deep thoughts about human history.

And if I may add a third title, it would be Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (1989), which is a compelling epic about the future of mankind.

🌳 I’m in Normandy all week this week 😏 We now have a proper internet connection! And we’ve established a viable homeschooling system: no internet during “school time”. The children are quite autonomous in their learning: they learn French (and discover that French conjugations are a nightmare), math, quite a lot of reading (in English), some German on the phone, and they work together on a weekly project (this week’s theme is Bavaria) for a presentation before their parents on Friday. And they run around outside and do the cooking. We are almost considering giving up school forever 😇 (but who knows maybe I will think differently when it starts raining).

I have new publications this week. For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote an English version of the interview I did last week with Nicolas: “Crises aren’t just problems that require solving, they’re also opportunities to reshuffle the game”. I wrote a piece about why Covid is shedding light on domestic work: in French, “Pourquoi avons-nous oublié que le domicile était un lieu de travail ? Réflexion sur les origines du chaos actuel; in English: “Here’s why our considerations about the workplace must include domesticity”.

I was interviewed by Mélanie Roosen for L’ADN: “Communication difficile, équipes au chômage, télétravail… comment gère-t-on le confinement en interne ?” (in French); and by Lila Meghraoua for Usbek & Rica: “À quoi ressemblera le travail après le confinement ?” (in French)

Miscellaneous

  • 🎥 L’Exercice de l’Etat (The Minister, in English): a 2011 film directed by Pierre Schöller. I had seen it once already in 2011, but this is the kind of film you can watch many times! It’s a brilliant, touching, must-see political drama that provides an insider’s view into the life of a minister and his entourage. It’s one of those rare movies that appeals to a broad audience, yet rings true to insiders.

  • 🌆 “Cities after coronavirus: how Covid-19 could radically alter urban life”, Jack Shenker, The Guardian, March 2020: what are cities going to become after coronavirus? What if Covid-19 radically altered urban life? The “declining cost of distance” (...) is likely to accelerate as a result of this crisis.

  • 🇺🇸 “Adieu to Old America”, Nicolas Colin, European Straits #167, March 2020: “the disappearance of Old America means that the world order we’ve been used to is about to disappear as well.”

That’s all for this week. Let me know what your favourite science fiction novels and films are! And stay safe 🙏 ❤️

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