I’ve been obsessively trawling through news feeds for more articles about the novel coronavirus pandemic, as though somewhere in the thousandth article I will find some life-saving pearl of advice that I didn’t see in the previous 999 articles. I can see that what I’m doing is a strategy–shared by many, I suppose–to offer myself the illusion of control in a cataclysm which is fundamentally beyond anyone’s control. (Of course, while the pandemonium is beyond anyone’s control, it’s not beyond everyone’s collective control: I’m very happy to see the people in my community of Portland, Oregon, starting to close up shop, hunker down in our houses, and practice social distancing even without explicit direction from our psychically damaged and malignant president).
As I hunker down here at my dinner table, reflecting on scary days ahead, I am reminded of a pandemic story I wrote years ago, one of my earliest science fiction efforts. The piece is called “A Murmuration of Starlings;” it was my first sale to a major sci fi publication (Analog Science Fiction and Fact). While there are a few elements in the story that I would have handled differently if I were writing it today, on the whole I think it has held up quite well. And there is a lot in “Murmuration” that I anticipated correctly about what a pandemic would be like: the focus on social distancing, the eerie calm in once-bustling places, the bemused emails and phone calls.
But, now that a pandemic is truly upon us, I’m more interested in the things I got wrong about the story, the things I failed to imagine. It didn’t occur to me to write about economic collapse, though of course that’s one of the things that’s easiest to notice about our current predicament. I didn’t think at all about the case fatality rate of the disease I was writing about: in the story, 90% of people who were infected died, though it seems to me now that a disease that deadly would burn itself out very quickly. It never occurred to me how much chaos and misery could accompany an infection with a 98% or 99% survival rate. I wish, now that I’m living through a real pandemic, that I had said something about the dithering and denial of the authorities in the early days.
If you don’t happen to have the June 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact lying around, you can read the story here. I can reassure you that there is a redemptive arc to the story, just the sort of thing a reader might need while hunkering down through a real pandemic.