Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel portrays perhaps the most optimistic of apocalypses, rendering hope in the darkest of times in prose so exquisite and dense with metaphor that it at times blends towards poetry. The book follows the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of performers who, in the aftermath of an influenza outbreak that has decimated most of the world’s population, visit the surviving settlements, entertaining the last pockets of humanity with theater—often Shakespeare, because, according to one performer, “people want what was best about the world” and the bard fits the bill— and concerts. The book revolves around the idea that art is key to survival—and that, as the motto of the Traveling Circus proclaims, “survival is insufficient” without the beauty and humanity art creates and reflects. For the most part, it does a truly wonderful job conveying this idea, weaving snippets from the lives of the performers into a glittering tapestry of a life rendered unrecognizable by how much was lost. The book struggles, however, to truly delve into the depths of that loss; characters comment in the abstract on the impact of catastrophe but—though the function of society is irrevocably changed—the function of the people within it seems almost identical to that of people in today’s world, a disharmony that can at times feel jarring. Additionally, the destruction is generic as much as societal collapse can be; the pandemic that swept the globe could just as easily be replaced by nuclear fallout or a chain of natural disasters. This is the perfect book for those searching for a philosophical take on the importance of beauty in the aftermath of great destruction and the ultimate goodness, complicated as it may be, of human nature.
Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata
Flu is a spectacular work of science journalism. It’s the most academic piece on the list—focused on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, it traces the virology of the disease, the public health crisis it caused, and the governmental responses it incited across the globe. The story hops between past and present, describing the human narratives and impacts of the disease, then leaping forward to detail new knowledge about how the strain developed and spread—and to acknowledge how much remains unknown. It manages to be remarkably compelling, avoiding the classical pitfalls of dry nonfiction despite its density. That said, it can at times be difficult to follow; the number of interwoven threads necessary in any attempt to capture something as impactful and complex as a global pandemic make tangles nearly inevitable.
Contagion – Prime Video
This is the quintessential pandemic procedural, an eerily accurate approximation of the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a systemic drama, attempting to provide a broad view of the global response to a fast-spreading virus with an incredibly high death toll. There is no room for individual heroism—the moments of quiet, impactful sacrifice are just that—quiet and sacrificed, any praise rejected by the characters who might deserve it in favor of relentless forward motion. The ramifications for characters’ refusal to follow guidelines and mandates are community-wide; rebellion and the idea of rugged individualism die with a whimper and a devastating shock wave in the face of the pandemic. It’s a gorgeous film, each piece carefully constructed to convey both the scope and scale of the response and its failings—there is perhaps no other movie that has made five minutes of a man touching various things (a bus pole, a credit card reader, a bar counter, and, most devastatingly, his daughter’s hair) so heart-wrenching and panic-inducing. In Contagion there is no place for idealism, though there is space carved out for hope; the realism to which the movie dedicates itself leaves little room for any conclusion but that humanity—sometimes wrong and selfish but often good and generous, terrified but, when driven by desperation and love, dazzlingly daring—will push through to an end, whatever that may mean. The only place the movie might fall short is in its ability to summon emotion from the viewer; the system-centric view makes connection to the characters more difficult to find, as they are rarely central for long enough to feel human. That said, watching it again this week, there was little barrier to empathy left; facing this new world where a pandemic truly is sweeping the globe made detachment slough away, replaced with a bone-deep comprehension of and compassion for the characters.
Outbreak – Prime Video, Netflix
Outbreak is indubitably an action movie. It is dense with firearms, explosions, car chases, and acts of individualism of the sort antithetical to the directives being distributed across the world in attempts to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. Outbreak follows a family attempting to break out of a government quarantine in order to escape the spread of a deadly virus despite the devastating consequences their success would have for the rest of the yet-uninfected world. References to epidemiology are few and far between, though the main character is ostensibly an epidemiologist; instead, the script is dense with the scariest depictions of viral spread 1995 could produce (there are lots of floating particles), cut with a healthy dose of cursing and inelegant attempts at humor. It does, however, capture the strange mix of groupthink, societal obligation, and self-preservation that characterize daily life in a pandemic. The characters are aware of the danger of breaking the quarantine but attempt nonetheless, desperation and individualism outweighing their awareness of the world’s interconnectedness and the dangers it represents. Watching the characters as they attempt their escape summons many of the same emotions as the videos of people gathering despite shelter-in-place orders: a mix of incredulity, disgust, disappointment, and a nagging understanding that, as time under social distancing stretches, the temptation to break it will only grow.
Rent – Prime Video, Hulu
Rent is startlingly topical, its musical format and well-known storyline a wonderfully apt way to convey the panic and small disasters that echo the larger, broader discord of disease. The characters grapple with many of the same things COVID-19 is forcing to the surface: the failure of capitalism, the irreplaceable importance of compassion and connection, and the way that terror leads to the creation—and destruction—of outgroups. The movie is set in the middle of the AIDS epidemic and follows a group of friends as they navigate poverty, drug use, sexuality, and the impact of AIDS. Though this isn’t quite a pandemic movie in the sense that some of the others are, it nonetheless sheds light on the ways that disease and the messaging around it shapes identity, culture, and politics. It’s unrepentantly stage-y, campy and charming for all its pretension; it feels like a theatre production and makes no gestures to conceal that theatricality. It’s enjoyable light watching (perfect for a screen share with friends), a testimony to the impact of an epidemic without any push to cause panic; it’s deeply emotional, even as the staging leads to light winces and laughter; and it’s deeply and inextricably tied to the time period and the realities of life’s relentless motion despite it all, revelatory in its groundedness.
Containment – Netflix
Containment is a serial apocalypse, each episode layering on the uninspired chaos and chipping away at the coherence of the series’ point. Focused on the officers monitoring a quarantined city, Containment feels bland and empty in a way many disaster movies do—it’s far too formulaic to be inspiring, and the lack of chemistry within the cast means that it flounders to find emotional connection. It has all of the classic disaster movie players—the children, the teacher, the scientist, and the pregnant girlfriend all make appearances—and all of the tropes. It’s enjoyable in so much as it is predictable, easy to watch whilst doing something else; the dialogue will never move too quickly, the plot doesn’t take any truly unexpected turns, and the characters are bland but recognizable enough to be a good source of human voices if shelter-in-place has truly pushed you to the limit. It’s a piece of media perfect for assuaging boredom without needing to invest any energy.
Written by Grace H.