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8 Ways that Being a Sci-Fi Writer Prepared Me for the Pandemic

8 min read

Many times over the past few weeks, I’ve had occasion to be grateful for my choice of profession! I suppose that it’s become a self-indulgent trope of science fiction that a speculative writer gets mixed up in some weird, unanticipated situation, and becomes a valuable part of the solution. I wish I could claim that! I can’t, but I do know that being a sci-fi writer has been of some benefit to me, and, I think, the people I care about, in facing this crisis. Here’s how:

I knew this was inevitable.

Not Coronavirus per se, of course. But a plague of some kind, for sure. A worldwide one, definitely. And something this contagious — absolutely. Or worse.

How did I know? Because I’ve imagined this scenario a hundred thousand times, both in works I’ve written and works I’ve read.

If you study history (which any smart writer does,) you know that disease has laid humanity low hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Plagues helped to destroy great Asian dynasties, the Bronze Age at its height, and the Roman Empire. Current research suggests that disease and famine destroyed the Aztecs and the Incas.

If you study science (which any smart sci-fi writer does,) you know that there were several “bottlenecks” in human pre-history, and some current research suggests that disease may be the reason.

We certainly know the effects of the 1918 influenza epidemic, the devastating effects of smallpox on the First Nations, and the Black Plague.

Why then, but not at other times? Was it because these diseases were so much more virulent than other diseases? Well, no, not really.

It was because at all of these times, trade and travel were widespread, active, and fast.

Travel and trade have never, in human history, been as widespread, active, and fast as it is today. That gives any disease more opportunities to find effective vectors than has ever existed before.

We’ve been comfortable in our illusion that our “mastery of nature” has made us immune to such petty concerns. But I’m sure Europe in the high Middle Ages thought the same thing; as did the Romans, and the incredibly modern people of the early 20th century. Even people like me, who should have known better, were lulled into a false sense of security. But medical professionals and historians have been sounding the alarm for years. It’s just that nobody wanted to listen.

I knew what to do.

I’ve read enough books on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction, that I actually did have some concept of how to deal with an extremely contagious pandemic, at least on a personal level.

Social distancing? Limiting personal trips to the store to once a week? I was doing that two to three weeks before BC health officials started calling for it.

Gloving up before opening packages from the mailbox? Washing my hands every time I left the house like I was scrubbing for surgery? Refusing to go to the hairdresser, even before they were all shut down? Same thing.

Before the shortage, I took three masks from the hospital while my mom was in there — just three, one for each of us who had to leave the house at the time, and no more, because I knew there would be shortages. Now, health authorities are advising everyone to wear masks in public.

I’m doing my mom’s errands because she’s high risk (she has COPD), and I have to make sure she takes her meds. So every night I am driving to her apartment, masking and gloving up, and going up the stairs so I don’t get stuck in an elevator with someone who isn’t respecting social distancing. And every time, I think to myself, “I read this book.” Putting on the protective gear before going outside to face whatever the dangerous biohazard is, just to accomplish everyday tasks, is something I’ve contemplated many times. And with it comes the awareness that relaxing on those restrictions opens yourself up to suffering and potentially, death.

If I can offer some advice from what my reading and writing habits have taught me, it’s this: recognize that every time you leave the house to interact with other human beings, you are literally risking your life. Now ask yourself: is it worth it?

Some things are. Taking care of my mom is. Getting lifesaving medication, getting needed food and supplies, and gods help us in this evil system, going to work, to get the money you need to get those things, is. But to get a jar of pickles because you forgot it, or to get milk when tomorrow is your shopping day anyway? Friend, it can wait.

I knew what NOT to do.

I did not waste my time or money, nor did I put an additional strain on the supply chain, by panic-buying. I knew that the government could not allow the supply chains to collapse without risking the complete and total breakdown of our political system, and I knew they would not let that happen. Not with the mortality rate of this particular plague, anyway. Not in Canada, where we are constitutionally entitled to “peace, order, and good government.” I knew the toilet paper and the Tylenol would be back next week.

I did not get together with my friends or loved ones for one last hurrah before the lockdown. I knew that setting a date for such measures meant that the threat existed ALREADY. I started distancing immediately, choosing not to visit the hospital two weeks before they asked visitors not to come. I immediately started doing my tabletop RPG game online rather than in person — again, before “social distancing” was formally requested.

I did not run off to my friend’s cabin in the woods in a less-affected area, in the hopes that I would outrun the plague. This is inevitably how the fall of civilization happens in apocalyptic plague novels. In almost any illness, you are contagious long before you start showing symptoms, and “feeling fine” is no guarantee that you’re healthy or that you’re not contagious. I hunkered down right where I was to wait it out. I am still here.

I did not play around with any miracle cures or protective hoodoo. This is a brand-new virus, and for all we know, even the most common-sense lifesaving methods may, in fact, be harmful. There’s new evidence, for example, that suggests that ventilation may actually be killing as many people as it saves. We just don’t know, so adding anything to the mix that might interfere is like putting your rent cheque in a slot machine and hoping for the best.

Above all, I did not, and do not, ignore the advice of medical professionals and health officials. I do what they tell me to do, because I know that despite this being a “novel” virus, they know more about how to handle it than I do.

I already spend a lot of time alone.

Writing is, by nature, a solitary profession. To get it done, you have to spend a lot of time alone with a computer. You can figure out ways to work with other people, but the truth is, most of my typical day involves me, and my keyboard. When I’m not writing I’m probably thinking about writing, or doing something that I must discharge as an obligation so that I can get back to writing. I’m used to entertaining myself for hours a a time in my own house, and thus, am probably better equipped to handle the confinement than most. I get bored less easily.

I already do most of my communicating online.

Writers have a lot of advantages in a limited-to-digital world. First, most of my friends are online. As a writer I’m kind of… odd. I don’t easily make friends at the bar or at work. I have to reach out over distances to connect with other people like me.

Second, I work from home anyway. I always have to submit my work over forms or email.

Third, I spend a lot of time on social media in communities that are interested in science fiction and fantasy. Believe you me, I am more busy than I was before the pandemic!

Finally, I consume most of my media digitally, and as a science fiction writer in particular, I already know where to go to find all the science news, and how to vet it for sources and accuracy.

I knew the financial collapse was inevitable.

I don’t think I’m going to spend as much time on this, especially because it’s in danger of becoming political. But just like knowledge of history should have warned us about a worldwide pandemic, it also suggested that the house of cards that was our financial system was on the verse of collapse. Rent-seeking behaviour, artificial inflation, and vast inequality are all historical warning signs of a dying financial system, as is broad environmental collapse. This is a fact, regardless of what you believe the solution should be. All it needed was a strong wind — like a pandemic.

I know that this could be a turning point.

Listen, friends. Historically, disasters like this are like hitting a giant reset button. One thing that drastic changes in our lives can tell us is that we don’t have to do things the way we have been doing them.

Our governments are shoving money out the door right now, so surely they could have done that in the 2008 financial crisis. They just chose not to.

The whole world has organized, with some limited exceptions, to defeat this danger. So surely, they can unite to defeat other existential threats to us all — like climate change.

Worldwide capitalism has been temporarily suspended. Although some countries are handling it better than others, we are all still alive. Clearly this means that the world would continue to go on functioning without it. Did we really like it that much? Maybe we should reconsider.

Above all, the Powers That Be have been trying to convince us that selfishness is a virtue for decades now. But as humans do (contrary to much of the fiction in my field) we have come together, and no one is surviving right now without the self-sacrifice of somebody else. Maybe we might want to re-think our priorities.

I know that this, too, shall pass.

It may seem strange to use a Biblical quote here, but I think you understand what I’m saying. Look, one thing that being a science fiction writer does for you is to give you the ability to visualize the worst-case scenario. And part of that involves reading about historical worst-case scenarios.

This ain’t it. Humanity has been through a lot worse sh*t than this! There are people out there who have experienced those things. They can tell you all about it.

I can also say that while this may look, in many ways, similar to apocalypses you’ve read about, as a science fiction writer I can assure you — this ain’t it.

I can’t promise that every individual person who reads this will survive. It’s possible that you won’t. It’s possible that I won’t. But one thing I can promise you — humanity will. For me, that’s a really comforting thought.

So I invite you to take the opportunity to slow down, re-evaluate, and consider how cooperation is our saving grace. And I promise that as a science fiction writer, if I do survive this, I will help the other survivors contemplate what new and brighter futures we might build out of this forced break in our society.

Because aside from preparing for disaster, that’s the other thing that sci-fi writers are good for — visualizing brighter futures.

#StayHome #StaySafe #TogetheratHome

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