The novel that predicted the coronavirus pandemic
Pulitzer Prize winner journalist Lawrence Wright’s new thriller is a prophetic account of a viral outbreak
Covid-19 may lead to an outpouring of pandemic fiction but Lawrence Wright got there first—even before the pandemic itself. In the last few years, the award-winning journalist was immersed in research for his new novel, The End Of October, which was released recently, ahead of schedule, as the book’s publishers found it an uncanny mirror to our times.
Set in the spring of 2020, the story revolves around the outbreak of a novel coronavirus—far deadlier than SARS-CoV-2—causing a disease called Kongoli flu. Traced to a camp in Indonesia, this mysterious microbe affects the immuno-compromised worst, leads to rapid decline of the person affected and a painful death. Predictably, it spreads beyond the camp, via a carrier who goes to Mecca for Haj, and a worldwide pandemic ensues. Initially, governments brazenly ignore the threat, but then, as the fatalities pile up, desperate measures are adopted. The US economy is gutted, the unnamed president falls prey to the virus, a cyber war with Russia ensues, and extreme food scarcity sparks off looting and anarchy. Social isolation, physical distancing and protective gear become the new normal, while offices and schools shut down.
Sounds familiar? Even spookier is the fact that Wright’s plot is largely based on informed guesswork. As a reporter known for his thoroughness—his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower (2006), was based on interviews with over 500 people—Wright has his ears to the ground. In the late 1990s, he wrote a movie called The Siege, which, weirdly enough, foretold the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center a few years before the actual event. To write The End Of October, he drew on extensive interviews with scientists and epidemiologists, who had long anticipated a disaster like the covid-19 pandemic. But even if a future pandemic was likely, little did Wright expect his imagined dystopia to come true with such alacrity, down to the last detail.
The hero of The End Of October is, expectedly, an American doctor-cum-researcher called Henry Parsons, though he’s far from a superhero with a miracle cure. On the contrary, he is a scientist with a shady past and has intimate knowledge of dangerous experiments to create lethal biological weapons (the world is still not done talking about the theory that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a lab in Wuhan, China). The novel virus he must fight in the book is unlikely to have been manufactured in a laboratory, though suspicion of foul play never leaves the reader. Although parts of The End Of October may appear clunky—especially when Wright gets into a sedate reportage mode—there is enough pace to the plot to keep us turning the pages.
Like many pandemics, the Kongoli flu also subsides after a while, before coming back with renewed virulence in a second wave. Will SARS-CoV-2 follow a similar trajectory? Are we staring at bioterrorism and cyber wars? Is there going to be a vaccine that might stem the pandemic that’s playing havoc with us? Answers to these questions elude us but reality—as we know—can be stranger than fiction.
FIRST PUBLISHED28.05.2020 | 11:01 AM IST