The Value Of Science Fiction In The World Of Covid-19

By: Josef Kahn  |  August 31, 2020

By Josef Kahn, Arts and Culture Editor

When people think of science fiction as a genre, they generally boil it down to aliens, robots, space, and usually some sort of time travel-y mess with inconsistent rules. And yes, that does sum up a fair bit of sci-fi; however, in my humble opinion, science fiction in its purest form is known under a broader, yet more nuanced, banner — that of speculative fiction. The subtle difference is the relationship between the ‘science’ and the ‘fiction.’ Rather than a dissertation on some fantastical pseudoscientific discovery, like faster-than-light travel (as wonderful as that may be), a well-done piece of speculative fiction reflects a certain quality of humanity over itself. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a powerful commentary on utilitarianism and deontology without the invocation of any of the aforementioned tropes. The story, simply put, is about us. 

So, what exactly does this have to do with Covid-19? Well, in recent times, one of the ever-popular sci-fi tropes has had a strong spike in popularity: apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature and media, with a particular emphasis on the zombie apocalypse (“The Walking Dead,” “The Last of Us,” “Dead Island,” etc). These stories are compelling to the audience for a wide variety of reasons: they allow for the exploration of anarchism as a social system without the need to overthrow our own government; they give us a window into a survivalist mentality without the threat of actually having to leave the couch; they even provide a platform and rationale for a minimalist lifestyle, something that more and more people are gravitating towards. However, perhaps the most important aspect of post-apocalyptic fiction is the value of hope in a time of immense darkness. There are always a few survivors, steely-eyed men and women set against a backdrop of near-impossible odds to overcome. Who among us can’t relate to the ever-present feeling of being the underdog? In their crumbling world, they are forced to make the tough and often painful decisions; in doing so, they essentially hold up a mirror to humanity, daring us to look and see what we find. What makes us human? For zombie fiction, it’s all about the struggle of and for life. 

This brings us to the frighteningly similar scenario currently unfolding all around us. Although there haven’t been any sightings of bloodthirsty undead (as of yet), this virus has effectively shut down the world in a way unlike any time in the past. Isolation has been a companion of many over these last few months, and the threat of sickness and death has been in all our minds. Accordingly, I believe it would be in all our benefit to learn from science fiction and seek to discover our own humanity in these trying times. Perhaps this doomsday scenario will ultimately be the story of how we as a race  — as a people  — became united during the worst of times.

Let’s look in the mirror together, shall we?