Some works of fiction seem ripped from the headlines. Others anticipate the news, providing a prophetic vision of our future.
Lawrence Wright’s new novel, “The End of October,” belongs in the rare second category.
The book, written months ago, imagines a global pandemic, with millions infected by a virus that began in Asia.
David Remnick, Wright’s editor at The New Yorker, calls it “the year’s most prescient piece of fiction.”
Wright calls the novel’s eery timeliness the result of research, not prophecy. But it’s not the first time elements of his fiction have foretold the future, he said in a recent New York Times essay.
As of Friday morning, hundreds of thousands of people around the world, including at least 15,500 in the United States, have contracted Covid-19. Coronavirus deaths topped 10,000 globally.
As the deadly virus spreads, Wright’s book raises the question: Will people want to read about a global pandemic while living through one?
“It felt a little creepy to have imagined an awful future that went on to become an even more awful reality,” Wright wrote in the Times.
“As I read the papers and watch the news, I have that same unsettled sensation of revisiting scenes that I have already written.”
‘The fruit of research’
“The End of October” is scheduled to be released on April 28. In the book, a literate thriller, the hero is an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization racing to find a cure for a deadly virus before it ends civilization.
The book’s real central character is the virus itself, a mysterious, deadly and even ingenious villain that hides its handiwork from the scientists trying to understand and stop it.
Wright, who is also a journalist and a playwright, has won a Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction book “The Looming Tower” about the 9/11 attacks, and a National Book Award for “Going Clear,” his history of Scientology.
Wright said his background as a journalist helped him imagine realistic scenarios for how a global pandemic would spread and devastate populations around the world.
“What may seem like prophecy is actually the fruit of research,” Wright wrote in the Times. (His publisher said he is not available for interviews.)
In other words, Wright is such a consummate journalist that even his fiction can be remarkably accurate.
Wright said he read about previous pandemics, including the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people, and imagined what would happen if a virus got loose in the modern age, with millions of people flying around the world and exposing everyone in their path.
The writer also said he consulted scientists and health care workers, some of whom are now on the front lines of the battle against Covid-19. “The End of October” is dedicated to them.
Why didn’t we see this coming?
The book imagines what would happen if a viral outbreak occurred during the Hajj, the pilgrimage that draws millions of Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, from around the world.
In real life, health workers have expressed similar concerns about large religious gatherings. Many of Malaysia’s cases of Covid-19 have been linked to an event last month that drew 16,000 people to a mosque near Kuala Lumpur. As in other countries, Malaysia has now placed restrictions on gatherings, including religious ones.
Wright said that he’s been accused of being prophetic – or at least prescient, before.
“The Siege,” a 1998 movie he co-wrote, imagines what would happen if New York City was felled by an attack by Islamic extremists. The movie tanked, Wright says, but after 9/11 it became one of the most rented movies in America.
Of course, Wright is not alone in predicting a pandemic. Scientists and journalists have been warning for years that something like Covid-19 loomed on the horizon. But now that it’s here, the virus – and Wright’s book – pose some challenging questions.
“How could human civilization become so broken?” Wright asks.
“How could we fail to preserve the institutions and social order that define us when we are confronted with something unexpected — a catastrophe that in retrospect seems all but inevitable?”