Fiction tends to reflect the concerns of its era and therefore it’s not surprising that diseases have become recurring themes in contemporary literature. In the last decade there have been widely publicized scares over bird flu, swine flu, Ebola and SARS, to name just a few.
Of course, humanity has always been plagued by infectious diseases, and this theme has been present from the very birth of literature, from the epic poem Gilgamesh through to Shakespeare’s plays and beyond. In the mid-twentieth century, concern shifted to nuclear annihilation and totalitarian regimes, but over the last few years, unstoppable viruses have returned to stalk fiction.
In her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron argues that fiction’s greatest power lies in its ability to provide strategies for survival. By forcing readers to confront unthinkable situations, it prepares them for the worst. The desire to survive is primal, and the brain rewards us for paying attention to survival stories with a shot of dopamine. This helps explains why people are so attracted to edge-of-the-seat thrillers and horror stories which take them to the darkest places.
There’s no denying that viruses are terrifying, and recent scares haven’t done much to reassure the population that scientists have it all under control. The fact remains, though, that more people die from parasites and bacteria than deadly viruses, yet these deathly organisms don’t evoke anywhere near the same level of terror.
Admittedly an out-of-control infection is much more exciting than a tapeworm, but there’s also something about a virus putting an end to life as we know it that taps into contemporary fears in a potent way. With terrorist atrocities on the rise, refugees flooding out of war torn countries and old political certainties seeming to crumble, it’s no wonder writers are conjuring up viruses that not only kill indiscriminately, but transform people into zombies and vampires.
Zika is the latest virus to evoke fear around the globe and its full impact is yet to be known. Brazil’s insistence on pushing ahead with the Olympics in August while also playing host to Zika is perplexing, however, hopefully this virus will be contained as others have been before it. Sadly, at this point in history a virus is just one of the terrifying threats faced by humanity.
Which survival/dystopian stories do you love?
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