September 21, 2020

Coronavirus: Pandemic fact v pandemic fiction?

Is truth stranger than fiction, as the American writer Mark Twain once suggested?

Now we all have a chance to judge for ourselves, for the veteran US journalist Lawrence Wright has just written a thriller novel, due out later this month, called The End of October.

This deals with a worldwide pandemic – a flu-like illness – that begins in the Far East but then spreads around the world. It erupts in Saudi Arabia during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Mecca itself is sealed off with three million pilgrims.

Sound fanciful? Not when you think that China recently put some 11m people in Wuhan under lockdown and similar measures have been taken all over the world.

“The book is not prophecy,” Wright wrote recently, “but its appearance in the middle of the worst pandemic in living memory is not entirely coincidental either.”

The novel, he told me, started as a screenplay a decade ago, when filmmaker Ridley Scott asked him to come up with a scenario about the end of civilisation. It was never completed. But, he says, the story always haunted him, and he decided to go back to it as a novel.

As a distinguished journalist and author of several highly successful factual books, Wright approached this just as he would any other journalistic assignment, carrying out detailed research and preparation.

As he went from expert to expert he heard clear warnings that something like the coronavirus would happen. It was a question not so much of “if” but “when”, and crucially, many asked how prepared governments would be to cope with it.

“Researching the novel”, he says, afforded him “the opportunity to dive in deeply enough to understand how such a crisis would play out.” The book is set in 2020. “I actually created a calendar on my computer,” he told me, “showing where my hero was and how the disease was progressing.”

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