Pandemic in science fiction When reality meets fiction: Imagination in the light of pandemics over the centuries...
Call for Manuscripts for a Special Issue of Stella Incognita
Pandemic in science fiction
When reality meets fiction:
Imagination in the light of pandemics over the centuries...
The appearance of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China, in November 2019 has profoundly altered the way we view international equilibrium. Using a war rhetoric, the political class wants to be “at war. Not against another nation, but against an invisible and elusive enemy.” (Emmanuel Macron, March 16, 2020), or ready to assume the role of “wartime president” (Donald Trump, March 28, 2020). However, the fight against the disease does not present, far from it, a common front.
Since the introduction of widespread containment and the requirement for individuals to limit their travel in order to contain the pandemic, most political systems have found it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to respond effectively to a large-scale viral threat. However, the different approaches taken by governments raise a number of questions about their respective priorities: economic recovery, “collective immunity”, policing, individual freedoms, etc. The question of how to address the pandemic is not always clear. The state is thus called into question, and even more so the capitalist system. The cessation of human activity, i.e., as far as the so-called “developed” countries are concerned, the reduction of production and consumption, and consequently of pollution, has an obvious immediate impact on the environment. This phenomenon also highlights the dependence of our societies on a globalized economy (imports, relocations).
The pandemic thus exposes “self-insufficiency”; the economic paralysis that ensues precipitates, or pushes even more, part of the population into poverty. Moreover, the disease makes visible, in a violent way, a competition between, on the one hand, public health and, on the other hand, an economy focused on profitability and prone to drastic budget cuts: one should work at all costs in a system that favors the continuity of the economic fabric over the common good of individuals. Torn between vital needs and needs created from scratch by a society based on profit and individualism, citizens no longer know which conspiracy theory to devote themselves to.
The pandemic confronts us with our contradictions and questions us about the place of the human being in an ecosystem: we should imagine new ways of “making society”, living together differently, and finally create other modes of functioning in which humanity no longer thinks on the scale of competing nations or states, but on the scale of the planet. The international network of public health professionals, as well as the numerous research projects and the intense exchange of scientific information, show one way forward, while the quarrels between Heads of State and the lack of European and global solidarity show another.
The theme of the pandemic has long crossed the literature: Montaigne (Les Essais, t. 3, chap. 12, 1595), Daniel Defoe (A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722) or Georges Didi-Huberman (Memorandum de la peste. Le fléau d’imaginer, 1983), all give their version, testimony, reconstitution or fantasy version of the progression of the plague on the European continent. The epidemic is described there as a temporal node which redefines the chronology of our societies into a “before” and an “after”.
Science fiction, which is familiar with the threats that humanity must face in order to survive, science fiction that helps to rethink the notions of communities but also of security and, why not, happiness, has quickly made the theme of the pandemic disaster a narrative element that is all the more decisive because it allows easy navigation between genres.
Indeed, while Karel Čapek takes up the theme of the epidemic to mock his contemporaries with his satirical verve in The Factory of the Absolute (Továrna na absolutno, 1922) or The White Disease (Bílá nemoc, 1937), Frank Herbert prefers to construct a political critique in which society itself seems to assume the function of an arbitrary disease (The White Plague, 1982); Deon Meyer, for his part, sets out to put into perspective poverty, the population density in cities, the weakened health systems, the corruption and the negligence of leaders who allow the rapid circulation of viruses to flourish, but also to imagine how the survivors of the pandemic are creating a new democracy (Fever, 1976). Stephen King, in turn, without abandoning his cherished social critique, emphasizes the horrific and paranoid aspect of the disease (The Stand, 1978).
Other works, halfway between science fiction and horror, play on the alternative offered by any epidemic: its defeat in the face of human industry and ingenuity (Doomsday, Neil Marshall, 2008), or its triumph over civilization (The Crazies, George Romero, 1973). Still others project us into profoundly transformed societies (Brian Stableford's E-mortality cycle; Satoshi Itoh’s Harmony—Project Itoh, 2008; and Catherine Dufour’s Le Goût de l'immortalité, 2005, Outrage et Rébellion, 2009).
Exceptionally, the COVID-19 crisis has shed a harsh light on several important socio-economic, and even philosophical phenomena that show how science fiction has now been overtaken by reality:
* The virus forcing a slowdown in industrial activity provides a glimpse of a world where pollution is declining and where nature seems, gradually, to be regaining its rights—for example, the drop of nearly 50% in carbon monoxide emissions in New York City, with wild animals now venturing into the cities. Paradoxically, this is also precisely the time when animal protection programs are running out of money and pressure is being exerted to weaken environmental policies.
* Similarly, this pandemic puts a spotlight on already known grey areas: the low wages of those who carry out essential activities (nurses, home help, garbage collectors, farmers, etc.), and the low wages of those who work in the informal sector (e.g. nurses, home help, garbage collectors, farmers, etc.), the harsh housing conditions (cramped, noisy, dilapidated) of the poorest quarter of the population, intra-family tensions (women and children victims of domestic violence and abuse during a state-enforced confinement), the loneliness of the elderly (at home, or the cases of abuse in nursing homes for elderly dependents), the working conditions of the economy’s “breadwinners” (precariousness of the employed, access to water and soap for lorry drivers, etc.).
* The virus as an object of fantasy—the statements of Professor Luc Montagnier about the development of COVID-19 in a laboratory; the Argentinean evangelist Ed Silvoso for whom the virus is a divine tool that should lead man back to religion ; the arguments surrounding the chloroquine treatment advocated by Professor Didier Raoult; the virus as a “hoax” according to Fox News; the rumor that the virus was created by Bill Gates in order to monitor the population by means of computer chips.
* The growing skepticism towards the scientific community is being replaced by a community of self-proclaimed “knowers” who are making absurd and even dangerous statements—Donald Trump who proposes to inject disinfectant into the sick in order to destroy the virus, putting himself directly at odds with the doctors of the White House team, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx; or Jair Bolsonaro claiming that it is only a “flu”.
* The issue of solidarity and common good is brought to the forefront. The destruction of public services, in this case hospitals, endangers the most vulnerable populations but also the health care personnel, for budgetary or even ideological reasons—such as the image of the nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital (New York State) who are forced to wear rubbish bags to protect themselves for lack of adequate protection, or Dan Patrick, vice-governor of Texas, declaring that the death of the not so young was undoubtedly a necessary sacrifice.
* The continuity of propaganda discourse within authoritarian regimes or dictatorships which, by falsifying scientific data or skewing the chronology of the pandemic, slows down the scope of international cooperation—the weekly La Croix headlines that Xi Jinping intends to “erase from the collective memory, in China and in the world, the origin and Chinese nature of the virus” (March 9, 2020); the difficulty of believing the figures put forward by the Russian Ministry of Health which largely minimizes the number of cases. North Korea, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, for their part, have announced that they have no cases of COVID-19, to which the international community gives no credit. The cessation of U.S. financial support to the WHO in the midst of the pandemic and the continuing decline in research budgets.
* The apprehension of certain governments regarding the rise in social demands following a possible end to the crisis; a possible restriction of civil liberties denounced by Edward Snowden in numerous interviews. A rise in potentially freedom-restricting measures in France with the requirement to complete a certificate each and every time someone wants to get out and the rise of criticism of police misconduct, but also surveillance via smartphone applications, or the use of drones to monitor the movement of populations.
* The hopes and potential disappointments of a possible “world after” imagined, more often than not, by the political class already in place. In this case, the utopian character of a just and united world is already contradicted by essays such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), which anticipates the political exploitation of the COVID-19 crisis.
* The irrational search for scapegoats—the American far-right extremists criticize the undisciplined behavior of poor neighborhoods accused of spreading the virus; Professor Ali Karami of Baqiyatallah University accuses, in a jumble, Americans and Israelis, while for the American pastor Ralph Drollinger, it is the homosexuals who should be blamed; the death threats received by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
* The consolidation of communities that favor their social models in spite of the common good—the fundamentalist church Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet organizes an unauthorized Easter mass in France. Its corollary: the disintegration of communities, such as the voluntary lack of coordination of the government of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte with the European Union, the refusal of some Americans to remain confined, encouraged to do so by Donald Trump.
* The death of personalities (Lee Konitz, Manu Dibango, John Prine, Luis Sepulveda), which is part of a media uproar and which, at the same time, casts millions of anonymous deaths into the shadows while questioning our relationship to old age, death and mourning.
The list is a long one of all the evils raised by the pandemic, such as, for instance, the fear of the conditions of a future deconfinement, or the fear of a second, equally deadly viral wave.
It is therefore a peculiar time that we all live in, where the scientific community does not seem to have a short-term solution., but continues to make progress in its understanding of the infection. No one, in fact, can boast of saying what tomorrow will bring... except, no doubt, science fiction. This difficult time is also a time for reflection, introspection, questioning, and imagination.
In this case, it is a call for papers that is out of the norm, out of the framework, which should make it possible to establish the state of the art of the science fiction imagination faced with the pandemic, to understand how our societies experience this disease, and how they have been altered by it, and how, in some cases, this pandemic has been exploited by part of the political class. We will ask ourselves how science fiction has changed our perspective on the disease. How can we read or reread science fiction after this crisis? How can we envisage the work of artists (writers, filmmakers...) after this crisis, knowing that COVID-19 now integrates our common imagination (see the short story “Toranoi: A Post-Apocalyptic COVID-19 Short Story” by Sajid Iqbal, or the film Corona Zombies by Charles Band)? How can we consider the influence of the virus on new narratives or on language?
This call for manuscripts is for a Stella Incognita Special Issue on “Pandemics in science fiction: When reality meets fiction—Imagination in the light of pandemics over the centuries...”. It is open to science fiction in all its forms, from all countries and without restriction of media. The papers can be in French or English.
Organizing Committee and Contacts for information:
Danièle André: email@example.com
Christophe Becker: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jérôme Goffette: email@example.com
Clémentine Hougue: firstname.lastname@example.org
Full-length papers are expected by 30th August 2020 and must be sent to the four above mentioned email-addresses.
Acceptance responses will be given by 30th November 2020.
The issue is to be published for the next Stella Incognita symposium in the spring of 2021 (April-May). It will be published online and as a print-on-demand book, with the AAH (Academic Association for the Humanities) university label.
- The texts must be written in the “AAH” model file attached to this call or downloaded from the association’s website.
- Below the title of the text, authors should indicate their institutional label or how they should be presented (independent researchers, authors, etc.).
- An abstract of approximately 250 words will be included at the beginning of the text.
- The texts that will be proposed and sent to us will be 4600 to 7000 words or 24500 to 37000 characters excluding spaces.
- References should appear in the text in the form of a footnote, with the full reference in the footnotes.
- At the end of the text, a “Bibliography” section is to be included.