Carolyn Lau curates a special issue on Science Fiction in Hong Kong penned by some of the territory’s most outstanding school-age literary talents.
Alex Chung reflects on post-apocalyptic science fiction and how to live with a pandemic in Hong Kong.
“Musings on Science Fiction and the COVID-19 Pandemic”
Since the beginning of 2020, we have been living in unprecedented times. As a student, I have had three semesters spent getting through periods of school suspension. From having a de-facto holiday extension to having video conferencing lessons for the first time; from having one face-to-face lesson a week to resuming whole-week, half-day classes just to have school suspended again. At the risk of cliché: all our lives have been turned upside down, and we have had to accustom ourselves to a ‘new normal.’ As a result, people all around the world, myself included, have turned to film and literature as a way to cope with this tumultuous period in human history. According to an article published by The Guardian, a survey with a sample size of 1000 people conducted in 2020 showed that, in lockdown, British citizens have almost doubled their reading time, with thrillers and crime being the favoured genres (Flood 2020). I, for one have found myself drawn to science fiction for comfort as well as for an odd sense of familiarity. After all, the videophone Stanley Kubrick imagined in 2001: A Space Odyssey has become our mundane reality in 2021 – except we are using video conferencing at home instead of in space.
I specifically recall a period in early 2020 when everyone was obsessed over films and books that had ‘predicted the pandemic,’ the most widely discussed of which, perhaps, being the 2006 novel World War Z and its subsequent film adaptation. As for myself, I had come across another lesser-known thriller that also claimed to have ‘predicted it all’ – Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The End of October (2020). Praised for its medical accuracy, the novel follows microbiologist Henry Parsons as he investigates a deadly virus in Indonesia that eventually spreads around the world. When reading this novel, one might find the vivid descriptions of face mask shortages and violent ‘patriotic’ anti-lockdown protests hauntingly familiar. Yet, how certain plot details of these films and books have ‘predicted’ our current pandemic is not what I believe to be most worthwhile of our attention. What we ought to take note of instead is how mankind’s worst qualities are exposed by these end-world events in fiction.
The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines human nature as ‘the set of human features or processes that remain after subtraction of those picked out by concepts of the non-natural, concepts such as culture, nurture, or socialisation.’ It is my belief that human nature is inherently ‘good.’ However, I believe that this side of human nature can be lost, especially when the modern world forces us to strip away our good-nature to get ahead in life. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed that humans, by nature, are ‘good.’ It is only the unnaturalness of civilisation that corrupts mankind. We are easily taken over by ‘concepts of the non-natural’ – including our ‘worst qualities,’ such as egoism and arrogance. It was also Rousseau’s belief that before the emergence of amour propre (self-love), pitié (pity) balances or restrains our self-interest (Bertram 2020). He believed that humans are capable of perfectibility, to improve themselves so they can behave morally. In Book I of his treatise Émile, Rousseau proclaims that ‘[i]f man is left […] to his own notions and conduct, he would certainly turn out the most preposterous of human beings. The influence of prejudice, authority […] would stifle nature in him and substitute nothing.’ In this sense, humans need guidance to achieve their natural goodness. Literature, specifically the genre of science fiction, oftentimes serves as prescient reminders of this. It warns us what might come to be should we degenerate further, succumb to the influences of prejudice and authority, and lose more and more of our natural goodness – our humanity. With that in mind, we can explore a wide variety of post-apocalyptic fiction, be it about an epidemic or invasion, and contemplate whether our humanity is preserved or lost in times of peril.
Once we have forgone the nit-picking of plot threads that mirror our current situation, one might be inclined to conclude that science fiction shows the logical extremes of our reality. It depicts what might happen if current situations are pushed to an apex. A book that I had come across during lockdown was the 1995 novel Blindness by Portuguese author José Saramago. The story revolves around a sudden city-wide epidemic of blindness. More importantly, it is a clinically realistic portrait of how, when exacerbated to a breaking point, mutual distrust, suspicion, and other similarly undesirable traits can easily topple law and order in a society, resulting in a total state of anarchy, and eventually the rise of a dictator amidst the chaos. In the novel, this is represented by the military. Originally tasked with taking care of the first batch of infected citizens, the soldiers quickly mutinied, withholding necessities from, and eventually executing a number of those whom they were supposed to protect. The question that should be on everyone’s minds is: could this conceivably happen in 2021? Victim blaming has been a hallmark of this pandemic. As James Culic notes in his opinion piece, there has been ‘a precipitous rise in the amount of finger-wagging, tsk-tsk-tsk-ing and nose-looking-downing’ with the rise in numbers of COVID cases. While it is understandable that people, in their emotional states, might self-protectively find someone to point a finger at, it is unsettling to think that victim blaming could, logically, turn into the scenes depicted in Saramago’s novel.
Another example would be the film A Quiet Place: Part II. Filmed in mid-2019 and released theatrically in May 2021, the sequel to 2018’s A Quiet Place elaborates on the devastating effects on mankind caused by an invasion of human-hunting, echo-locating creatures. In a memorably chilling scene, the protagonists are attacked by a pack of feral humans at a pier for no apparent reason. Is this what happens when our primitive, selfish instincts kick in and take over our civilised, rational minds? Again, is this not an extreme version of the ‘panic buying’ wave we all saw at the beginning of the pandemic? Is buying more masks than we will ever need and thus depriving others from necessities not comparable to threatening their well-being and exposing them to the potentially fatal virus? And what about our healthcare workers? In March 2020, the World Health Organisation warned that the hoarding of masks and other medical supplies might put healthcare workers at risk. How are we able to stop ourselves from becoming the characters in science fiction that we all hate? Are we only one step away from turning into the animalistic humans portrayed in A Quiet Place: Part II? After all, in his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau claims that ‘human perfectibility, the social virtues, and the other faculties which natural man potentially possessed, could never develop of themselves, […] and without which he would have remained for ever in his primitive condition.’
It might seem like we have regressed back to our cavemen instincts, our fight-or-flight permanently turned on; yet our humanity is precisely what separates us from the beasts. Science fiction reminds us of the reprehensible people we could all become, and the deplorable things we could all do; it is only our humanity that keeps us from becoming the antagonists in a sci-fi novel. While it is true that the irrational stockpiling of necessities is self-serving, we have seen an inordinate number of regular citizens give back by donating items and funds to organisations or their neighbour-in-need who lives across the street. It is undeniable that distrust has led to victim blaming, but we have also seen communities lifting each other up during these turbulent times in the form of local support groups. There is even support between different groups. Such is the case with COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK. Founded by a group of volunteers, it is a support network that joins a myriad of community groups together, facilitating their mutual assistance. Our humanity is the only thing keeping us from living within the dystopian realms of science fiction. No matter how accurately some books and films may have ‘predicted’ the COVID-19 pandemic, our reality is still nowhere as perilous as those portrayed in such fiction. While the initial pages of The End of October contain, as discussed, a rather vérité, existential warning on how virus outbreaks can and will spiral out of control, the latter part of the novel progresses into more conventional thriller territory. The President’s eyes bleeding in the middle of the Oval Office and orphan gangs roaming the streets of Atlanta are, as of now, rather unrealistic scenes. It is not to say that they could not happen, but they probably would not, provided we retain our humanity.
Perhaps this is – and know that I am trying my hardest not to seem insensitive when I say – the only ‘upside’ to the pandemic. We have had this urge to take a work-from-home afternoon off and make time for a book or a film, something that, in the past might have seemed like a leisure activity we never have time for. I am quite sure I am not the only one to have made these observations. Maybe this new-found interest in literature has prompted more reflection and introspection regarding humanity and our worst qualities. Of course, not all people have the privilege to stay at home and read books or watch movies. Innumerable essential workers risk their lives to maintain social order and prevent the world from succumbing into utter chaos. They do so because of their valiance, because of their selflessness, and ultimately because of their humanity. The support that regular citizens have given healthcare workers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers and so on further proves the point that this pandemic has forced us to reflect on our perhaps previously lost humanity. Taking myself as an example, a pre-pandemic, more self-absorbed me might not have felt this level of empathy towards essential workers; nor the long hours they work at minimum-wage. This is not to say that I would not have cared, just probably not as much as I do now.
Living in these times has aided us in rediscovering our previously diminished humanity and afforded the opportunity to become again better people. Our lives will never be the same; we can never return to a pre-pandemic world having lived through these times. Our states of mind and dispositions have forever been altered, and maybe that’s not necessarily for the worse. In this pandemic, we have lifted each other up as well as torn each other down in starkly different ways. Perhaps we will never be this close again, or perhaps we will be less distant than we were before. In a post-pandemic world, all we have is the mysterious and the unknown. However, Einstein once said the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. We will be going into a post-pandemic world full of uncertainties. But one thing is for sure – having lived through these times, we are sure to emerge stronger, and more human than ever.
Alex Chung is a student and free-spirited libertarian who enjoys writing down all of his random thoughts, introspections, and observations about the world. He is often found lost in the immortal verses of Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.