Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Ten Dystopian Novels Inspired by Pandemics

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."

Charles Dicken's words have never been more relevant as we endure a worldwide pandemic with widespread quarantines and stay at home orders.

I have read a many dystopian novels and it certainly feels like we are living in one. In most dystopian novels, humans survive. Whether we continue to thrive or wither is on us. It can bring out the best in people, and the worst.

Here is a list of ten books inspired by outbreaks.

1Andromeda Strain  (1970) by Michael Crichton is by far the scariest tale I remember from my childhood. Images of people dissolving into dust stuck with me. A military space probe brings microbes back to earth, setting off an outbreak. Scientists race to understand and contain the threat. They keep it secret with total news blackouts. Of course back then we didn't have 24/7 news feeds or social media. I never looked at our space missions the same way again.

2A Journal of the Plague Years (1988) by Norma Spinrad  (a Nebula award winning science fiction writer)  covers a sexually transmitted outbreak similar to HIV/AIDS. I was a young adult when the onset of the AIDS pandemic began. It definitely put the brakes on the free love movements from the 70s and made everyone rethink the safety of sex.

3The Old Drift (2019) by Namwali Serpell  a Science Fiction novel inspired by the HIV/AIDS epidemic which devastated the population of Zambia. She takes several families through multiple generations with rich SciFi worldbuilding.

4Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood  writes another epic dystopian tale in which a plague has destroyed humanity and only a few lonely survivors try to find their way in a devastated landscape.

5Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) by Katherine Anne Porter covers the Spanish Flu, one of the deadliest global outbreaks of the H1N1 virus, that rampaged through Europe and America from 1918 to 1920 during World War I. Estimates of deaths vary from 50 million to 100 million. I can only imagine how terrifying a pandemic in a war zone must be.

6Pandemic (2019) by Robin Cook (one of my favorite thriller writers) follows a medical examiner as he attempts to identify and fend off a new epidemic and mixes in genetic tinkering and the black market for body parts. He also wrote Outbreak (1988) and Contagion (1996).

7. The Plague (2012) by by Albert Camus and Stuart Gilbert involves a bubonic plague ravaging the people of a North African coastal town.

8The Stand (2008) by Stephen King examines a world bereft of the majority of its population. How do the survivors navigate the new, savage terrain while facing supernatural evil?

9Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel a takes a look at how artists help us navigate a plague that destroys our world. She interweaves the realities of life before and life after the pandemic.

10. Zone One (2012) by Colson Whitehead  covers a pandemic that strikes a futuristic US where people are separated into two categories: infected and uninfected. The main character is tasked with trying to keep them separated. I think we see a lot of that now with the current corona virus. How seriously do people take the quarantine? It is hard to parse the reality and the hype.

As we struggle to navigate our strange new world, it will be interesting to see what changes and what remains the same. I am certain there will be a plethora of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about this agonizing event in human history.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Last year I happened to watch The Bird Box on Netflix, and then read the book (movie is better by far), and I was totally chilled by our current situation developing in a similar way to the start of that movie. Though, thank goodness we don't have to wear blindfolds and cover up all our windows!

    I read a lot of Robin Cook as a teenager and 20-something, and I did also think this whole situation could have been channeled straight out of one of his books - I had no idea he had such a recent pandemic novel, though. That's freaky. I might wait a couple of years to read that...

    My daughter chose The Secret Garden audio book the other day (mainly because she saw the trailer for the movie that was supposed to be coming out this month (now pushed to August)) - I had completely forgotten that everyone dies of cholera at the start of the book (except the main character, of course)! o.O

    1. I watched that too! The blindfold would be hell. I loved the earlier 1993 version of the Secret Garden. It was so beautifully filmed.

  2. Sounds like a number of those novels are almost prophetic. They're definitely positive proof that history repeats itself.

    1. A plethora of books? No doubt. After all, both fiction and nonfiction draw their content from the human condition

  3. I've read a lot of these and always thought them very scary, but On the Beach by Nevil Shute chilled my bones even more. I'm going back to reading cozy mysteries for a while.

  4. I haven't been able to finish Chronicles of the One, which starts out with a devastating plague in book one of the series.

  5. Quite a list. I'm not a big dystopian genre reader, but I did read The Andromeda Strain years ago, along with almost every other Crichton book. There's also Children of Men by PD James. Even Mad Max movies seem prophetic now. I think the current mantra is "We will get through this," but it is really scary. While living through this, I don't want to read about it.

    1. Writers imagine to prepare us but we don't listen.

  6. I'm with Polly. I don't think I want to read about pandemics, although I've been enjoying historicals set around WWI and WWII, so Pale Horse, Pale Rider has some appeal. I read The Stand long ago, and actually thought it was one of the best books Stephen King has written.


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