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Coronavirus: Pandemic fact v pandemic fiction?

   Saturday April 4, 2020 - 10:48 PM
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s 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.

Prescient
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."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lawrence Wright is an acclaimed journalist and novelist
Much of his research was frighteningly prescient.

"I did see it as a wake-up call," he says. "But of course, by the time the book will appear, it's more like Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, depicting events that you can read in the newspaper every day, often, it seems to me, in concert with the events on my calendar."

Wright's use of a novel to present his argument is just part of a growing trend.

In recent years a number of other authors eager to grapple with major challenges that might threaten our way of life, have turned their backs on weighty non-fiction or semi-academic books and tried out the thriller formula themselves.

March of the robots
PW Singer, whose day-job is at the think tank, New America, is a leading expert on the way new technology is affecting our lives, especially in the military and security domains. He is fast becoming something of a veteran of the genre.

In 2015 he co-wrote with August Cole a novel called Ghost Fleet which was set in the near future and portrayed a post-communist China launching a technologically sophisticated military attack against the United States in the Pacific.

Their new book, out in May, is called Burn-In, and describes itself on the jacket as "a novel of the real robotic revolution." I have interviewed Singer several times for factual pieces on drones, high-tech rivalry and so on. So, why now turn to fiction to deal with robots and artificial intelligence?

"We feel that there is a historic revolution happening around us - literally one of the most important for human history, which will reshape the world around us," he told me. But the extent of the potential change is largely obscured from most people.

"So," he says, "we thought to blend the fiction and the fact in a new way that heightens both, and also proves useful in helping to give people a better understanding of the changes that are coming. Most people, including frankly most leaders, won't make time to ...

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