With a global pandemic keeping all of us inside for the foreseeable future, this might be a good time to curl up with a book and not leave your house. We know that your weekend plans are cancelled, and soon you’ll be sick of binge-watching shows. Let us help distract you from the ever-present fear and anxiety you are almost certainly experiencing with a top 10 list of genre books about plague and pandemics to read.
The world is a very scary place right now. A pandemic on this scale is more often found in fiction than in present-day society. To that end, we turn to books to see what lessons we can learn from fictional outbreaks. We have gathered together a list of some of the best genre books dealing with plague, disease, and pandemics. Not all of these are hopeful books with happy endings. But many of them do illustrate the importance of humanity banding together in the face of overwhelming disaster.
You might be asking me, but if I can’t leave the house how can I get a copy of these books? Well you could order them online but I would recommend checking out your local library. Even if you cannot physically get to the library, most public libraries have online systems where you can check out e-books to read on your phone, tablet, or computer. Bonus, many of these books also have film adaptations that you can check out too.
There is no order to this list, just like there is no order to the state of things anymore. Just read something, try to find small joys where you can. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Take a deep breath. Read a book.
10) The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
Image via Anchor Books
Our lady of dystopian fiction Margaret Atwood first wrote Oryx and Crake in 2003. This post-apocalyptic novel begins far in the future with a mysterious figure who lives amongst a race of strange creatures. The next two books of this trilogy take readers into the past (our present day) to examine how this character was the lynchpin of a sweeping epidemic that decimated humanity. Always prescient, Atwood once described the major questions of these books as her wondering “what if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?”
Although Atwood’s vision of the future in this trilogy is very dark, there is a bit of hope in the end and like all of her work it conveys a compelling and vital message for our times.
9) The Stand by Stephen King
Image via CBS
Perhaps a little too timely in our list of genre books about plague and pandemics is King’s massive opus. The Stand is about an influenza-like virus utilized as biological warfare, and the survivors struggling to eke out an existence in the aftermath. King has described this book as his “American Fantasy Epic.” The length of the book certainly falls into the ‘epic’ category. A modern-day classic that will take up plenty of your time while you are stuck inside.
8) I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Image via Rosetta Books
The book that launched many adaptations and influenced a genre of zombie horror fiction. I Am Legend was published in 1954 but its message is as relevant as ever. The novel follows a character who may be the only survivor of a worldwide apocalypse that has turned the rest of humanity into ghouls. A compelling treatise on human loneliness, and what it means to survive. You can also read this story in graphic novel format, an adaptation was published by IDW in the early 90’s.
7) The Children of Men by PD James
Image via Faber Publishing
The basis for the excellent sci-fi film of the same name, this novel follows an epidemic of mass infertility. Although the novel focuses more on the totalitarian government that has taken power, one of the central characters is a pregnant woman trying to protect her unborn child in a world where babies are no longer being born. A pointed social commentary, and a study on resistance in the face of despair.
6) The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
Image via Alfred A. Knopf
The book that cemented Crichton’s place in the world of genre fiction, The Andromeda Strain is about an extraterrestrial virus that sweeps through Arizona. A landmark novel in genre books about plague and pandemics, this story set the tone for much of Crichton’s career. This book might comfort some to see a team of scientists working together to put a stop to the outbreak. An important reminder that science can save lives at crucial moments like these. Please listen to the scientists.
A sequel to The Andromeda Strain also came out in 2019, written by Daniel H. Wilson it is called The Andromeda Evolution. If you enjoy the original, the sequel might also be worth checking out.
5) The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin
Image via Ballantine Books
Another series that contains a virus that turns humans into vampire-like creatures. The Passage is an apocalyptic novel that deals with the epidemic as it is spreading, and a post-apocalyptic study of humanity dealing with the fallout. It centers on a teenage girl with mysterious healing powers who might be the key to humanity’s salvation. The series is a genre-bender, combining fantasy and horror in this dystopian thriller.
4) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Image via Vintage Books
Acclaimed as one of the best novels of 2014. Station Eleven follows a traveling theater troupe in the aftermath of a swine flu pandemic. The novel focuses on a young woman within the troupe whose entire life has been spent on the road. Station Eleven shows us the importance of art and culture in a world that has lost everything. It is also a provocative look at the best and worst of humanity after a disaster.
3) The White Plague by Frank Herbert
Image via Putnam
In a drastic departure from his beloved Dune series, this standalone novel by Herbert is set on Earth in the 90’s. The plague in question is bioengineered by a mad scientist who is trying to punish terrorists by becoming a terrorist himself. The virus is carried by men, but kills only women and soon a large percentage of the female population on Earth are wiped out. A complex social commentary that deals with some heavy issues, this rare non-Dune book from Herbert is one worth reading.
2) The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
Image via Cheapest Books
Over the course of the last few weeks I have seen many references to this Poe short story on social media. The tale of a prince who is hiding out from a plague in his fancy abbey. He decides to throw a masquerade ball for his wealthy friends when a mysterious figure masked as the Red Death shows up and devastations follows in their wake. A classic gothic tale from a master of the genre, this story can be read in a multitude of forms. There are many comic adaptations of the story from Marvel, but anyone can read the original story online via Project Gutenberg.
1) The Last Man by Mary Shelley
Image via Sheba Blake Publishing
The mother of science-fiction Mary Shelley published this story in 1826. The Last Man imagines a post-apocalyptic future. A black sun and violent storms presage the outbreak of a plague that spreads across Europe. The characters appear to be based on many historical figures from Shelley’s own life, including her husband. They are complicated and represent the best and worst of humanity. A story rich with prophecy and metaphor, Shelley’s novel may not end on the happiest of notes but it does tell a timely story and is one of her underappreciated works. The Last Man is also in the public domain, and is available as a free ebook via Project Gutenberg.
What are your favorite books about plague and pandemics? Do you find that reading about this topic eases your anxiety or makes it worse? Do you just need someone to talk to about books? Then join the conversation with us at Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today. Now please, go wash your hands.
(Featured photo by Kuma Kum via Unsplash)
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.