I noticed, early in the lockdown, how certain film topics seemed to be creeping up the lists of recommendations on the platforms. There was Outbreak, something called Pandemic (bit on the nose), 93 Days, The Forgotten Plague, and, of course, Contagion, the Steven Soderbergh film with the stellar cast that had completely passed me by.
Some people, I know, are avoiding This Kind of Thing, while others are leaning into it. This is why humanity can never be reconciled and we will never become some kind of Arthur C Clarke Higher Consciousness, beams of light, or whatever. I wasn’t going to watch any of these films, not because I’m an Avoider, but because I don’t like watching films. But then I kind of ran out of things to watch. I’m off Netflix at the moment, NowTV is clinging onto my bank account by the skin of its *cough*Westworld*cough* teeth, and Amazon Prime really doesn’t have much good stuff. I tried Tales from the Loop – twice! – and it didn’t grab me even a little bit.
So on went Contagion. It was all right. A little bit cool on the emotional impact, but full of stuff we’ve become familiar with such as R0 and so on. What it seemed to get badly wrong, as so many pandemic narratives do, was the deadliness of the virus. If it took hold that quickly, and killed that quickly, it would die away because a virus needs its host to spread it around a bit. But of course, you’re much less likely to get a Complete Breakdown of Society if the virus gives most people a bit of a cough and only kills about one percent of its victims.
(I keep wavering on whether I think I’ve had it. Over two months ago, I did get a “rotten cold” and cough, and I suffered my usual postnasal drip to a chronic degree. And two months later, I still find myself wheezing frequently, and the slightest irritation of the airways leads to a 60 minute coughing fit. Other than that, I feel fine. I lost my sense of taste a long time ago, so… *shrugs*.)
Anyway, the bit of Contagion that made me smile was the character played by Jude Law, who was shilling a quack medical cure in order to commit massive financial fraud. And he was a sleazy blogger type, whereas the sleazy type shilling quack medical cures at the moment turns out to be the President of the United States. Somebody hexed us with the Interesting Times curse, sure enough.
Meanwhile, I picked up a science fiction novel I’d downloaded ages ago: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig. Which kind of sneaks up on you in that when it starts off you don’t know it’s going to involve the CDC, bats, infections, and pandemics.
A girl wakes up one day to find her sister gone, wandering down the road as if in a trance, and impossible to wake from her sleepwalk, or even impede. More walkers join her, and a growing troop of sleepwalkers and their relatives start crossing the continent. Nobody knows why, least of all the CDC, who are in attendance, along with an artificial intelligence called Black Swan.
It’s a fascinating premise, and for the first half a gripping read. But other elements come into the story which seem to me to be unnecessary: right wing militia, terrorist groups, that kind of thing. Now, I know that armed terrorists are stalking the streets of America all the fucking time, and Chuck Wendig was only skating to where the puck was, but I found it all a bit boring and repetitive. It starts to read, really, like one of those Niven and Pournelle novels, except more graphic and distressing.
Anyway, Wanderers is 400 pages of a great science fiction novel, and I was very enthusiastic. But then the next 400 pages become, at times, a bit of a trawl. The lesson? If this had been two books, I’d have been pissed off with Volume 2. As it is, 800 pages is a lot, and some ruthless story editing might have left it a superb 600 page novel. Still, if you’re not an Avoider, it’s worth a look.