My Favorite SF/F Epidemic Literature
Posted on August 6, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 52 Comments
The fine folks at Goodreads asked me to offer up a list on my favorite SF/F books which feature epidemics (because, you know, Lock In features one), and I was happy to oblige. If you follow this link, you will find five books about epidemics that I enjoy and recommend. Happy reading, and don’t get paranoid the next time you cough.
I’m feeling much better…
I really loved Emergence. It is one of the few books thatI I have sold then re-bought. A kick ass young lady dealing with a world she would not have chosen.
So sad that the Maddaddam trilogy didn’t make it. Those were some of the most enthralling books I’ve ever read.
If you read The Stand as a kid, then you thankfully got the edited version, not the bloated uncut version that King got released later on. Otherwise good choice on that one.
World War Z is probably my favorite epidemic book.
Not sure if it’s something you can fix, or if the admins at GoodReads would have to, but in the list of books, Grass doesn’t actually have the title, it’s just the authors name. You can make out the title in really small print on the cover image, but it’s not out in the text of the list.
I’ve read four of the five, but forgot about Emergence until you mentioned it. Then I immediately remembered it. Very powerful book.
The Stand (original) always gets me sick when I read it.
Having recently read WWZ, … well, that book scared the shit out of me.
Not a book to read at night, alone in the house. nope. nope. nope.
Had to check the shower multiple times.
The Stand was my former favorite. KSR’s “The Years of Rice and Salt” is my new hotness, though.
That man knows how to craft a world…
Grass is one of my favorite books. A reminder I have not done a re-read in quite some time. It’s one of the few books I have in paper and hardcover. My copy of The Stand disappeared during one of my moves, but I still have Bridge of Birds which I re-read last year. I’ll check out Emergence but a NO to World War Z – I am profoundly allergic to zombies.
Just checked – Emergence is out of print and no copies at the library…
I hear the original Stand was much better. I hated the uncut version.
~I always favoured Russ Foreman’s “The Ringway Virus” for my epidemic-terror, and for some guilty schlock-reading, Guy N Smith’s “Throwback” where a virus turns most of humanity into some sort of human-baboon mutants.
Solid, *solid* picks. I expected The Stand, and WWZ but was delighted to see Emergence, Bridge of Birds (never too much love for this series) and Grass (the only SST that I really enjoyed.)
Years of Rice and Salt was also worthy of mention. I suggest David Brin’s “The Giving Plague” as an entry in the ss category.
I’m so grateful you suggested I read Grass. There’s a passage in there I return to that altered my worldview.
Wow, completely forgot about Emergence since I read it when it came out…I loved that book then and somehow haven’t thought of it since.
I remember Emergence fondly (bought and read when it first came out). I really enjoyed many of Sherri S. Tepper’s novels, and Grass is one of the best (Raising the Stones is a very close second, as well as being a loose sequel to Grass).
I wrote about the plague once. NEVER AGAIN. Not only has my sister not forgiven me for having made her read that, but my god, it was the most depressing thing I’ve ever written. To the point where I hated having to go back through those scenes in in revision/copy edits/page proofs.
Now, apocalypses of other sorts? Sign me up!
I’d add a couple of additional English favorites:
John Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” (epidemic blindness – and what follows)
John Cristopher’s “No Blad of Grass” (epidemic that affects all grasses – which means also all cereal plants)
“Emergence” is one of those books that I’ve read many times. Excellent book.
Every read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart? I just discovered this book last year at my library. A very interesting tale about the small group of survivors of a major plague. The town the story is set in is near San Francisco (sorry I can’t remember the name). There are so many supplies left, that the survivors don’t really need to struggle to survive. This leads to some interesting developments. I think you’ll enjoy it.
I’m the guy who is unimpressed with The Stand. Instead I suggest Swan Song by McCammon instead.
Without fail, I seem to catch a cold *every* time I read The Stand. ;)
No love for “The Passage”?
Even with the advent of “World War Z” an oral history of the first Interstellar War (or any kind of history of such an event) sounds intriguing, but you probably don’t want to revisit this particular idea. But if you do I would read the shit out of it.
The Stand was my favorite Steven King book. I really liked Grass but it’s been so long since I’ve read it I don’t remember the story line, time to take it out of the library again. Another interesting book is by Kate Wilheim – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.
I first read George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” in high school. It isn’t exactly science fiction and doesn’t go through the agonizing throes of pandemic – rather picks up with a man who’d been off on a camping trip and missed out, then attempts to hang onto the last threads of civilization. But it it’s full of evocative ideas and imagery, and especially since it’s set very near my home in the San Francisco Bay Area – it has really stayed with me. I re-read it about 10 years ago, and while the language it a little stilted, I think it’s really ripe for a movie adaptation.
(Shrug) I much preferred the uncut version of THE STAND.
WIth that warning, so you won’t be steered wrong by my notoriously perverse taste, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Frank Herbert’s THE WHITE PLAGUE which I think is the saddest SF novel ever, at least by implication–genocidal maniac creates and releases virus that gives men a mild nosecold (so they’re carriers) but kills women of childbearing years (so after the initial die-off, girls die at puberty). One of those books where if they legally required trigger alerts there’d have to be one on the cover copy AND every page.
On a much brighter but still terrifying note, my favorite plague novel of all time (and very short and to the point for those of you who like that) is John Blackburn’s A SCENT OF NEW-MOWN HAY. Next time you take a tub bath after reading it, you will jump out of your skin if there’s a noise elsewhere in the house. Read it if you can find a copy and you will see what I mean.
My favorite novel about an epidemic, by a country mile, is Blood Music, by Greg Bear. Bloom, by Wil McCarthy is worth a look too. Both are about self aware, intelligent epidemics. I look forward to reading Lock In.
I had forgotten that part of Bridge of Birds. All I remember was supreme pleasure while reading. Time to read it again!
May I offer for consideration The Dog Stars by Peter Heller? Set in the American mountain west, virulent influenza strain has carried off 90+% of everybody, survivors having to make do. Well written, it’s really about making the change from looking back to looking ahead. Oh, and there’s a small airplane in it :-)
Other obvious candidates include Connie Willis The Doomsday Book and John Wyndham Day Of The Triffids.
May Ghu bless you for including Hughart’s Bridge of Birds; it is simply one of the best novels, ever. Humor, fantasy, logic puzzles, and an ending where you smile through the tears. Though the sequels don’t quite tick all of the boxes, they are also well worth reading.
As for The Stand, I read it while confined in a hospital with MRSA. The first third was literally terrific (in both senses of the word) while the remainder bored me silly. But I suspect that it was the uncut version as it clearly demonstrated that every author, no matter how great, really, really needs the help of a good editor in order to avoid killing a tale with its own words.
I also liked Emergence when it came out, and read it to pieces. I am afraid that if I read it again now, the Suck Fairy would have paid it a visit..
I still love Emergence. Solid selections from John and the comments. A few I haven’t read in the comments, so I appreciate the recommendations.
I am a little surprised that Blood Music didn’t make John’s list, but picking just 5 has to be tough. So many books!
Yay for Emergence love!!!
A book about the first Interstellar war would be great. World War Z is one of my favorites and I would love to see that format taken to space. I’m a little surprised Seanan McGuire didn’t make your list. The Newsflesh series was pretty good.
Not sf/f, as we are living in the post-apocolypse this novel describes, but Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks is amazing.
Reading this thread I decided I wanted to read Emergence so I checked Amazon and found it is out of print. Copies can be had for $46 used and a whopping $125 new (in paperback!). I decided to first check my library which I recently set back up after having been boxed for years and to my surprise, I found a paperback copy in very good condition. Happiness!
Another vote for The Dog Stars. A powerful, beautifully-written book.
Really liked the Stand and World War Z.
never heard of the other 3. Thanks for mentioning them. They look good.
I believe World War Z is what got john to re-write locked in. Didn’t he say this was going to be written that same style? I know he used the ‘interview people after a holocaust’ style for his locked in short story.
World War Z was a GREAT book. The movie was complete garbage and was not even remotely related to the book. It was written in a VERY original way. Its a series of interviews with survivors of a zombie apocolypse.
As far as the stand. I read the first print. The 2nd one is longer. The 2nd one is actually the ‘original’. King had to shorten it because at the time they couldn’t practically publish a book that size and turn a profit. I read the shorter one (short is relative). I liked it alot. Never read the longer one.
Surprised John never mentioned Alas, Babylon. I have not read that, but its supposed to be a classic. Seemed like the kind of book scalzi would like. It might be too dated for todays audience (one reason I didn’t read it).
One interesting and irrelevent point. I think Mary Shelley wrote one of the first pandemic books back in the 1800s. I saw it on her wikipedia page.
Alas Babylon is a great book. But it’s not an epidemic book. It’s a nuclear holocaust book.
I liked Willis’s Doomsday Book quite a lot, but felt it is (easily) the weakest of her Oxford timetravel series. My experience was further marred by having read a number of cover blurbs praising the novel for it’s treatment of “the timeless nature of good and evil”. Which, no, not so much. There was very little evil in that story, only mamma nature, failing to give a care, as she always does.
Great list, John.
From the comments: The nicest thing I can say about Stewart’s Earth Abides is that it is a product of its time. Lots of bad science (canned goods don’t stay good forever, gasoline goes “stale”, etc) with some casual racism thrown in for good measure. I love plague lit and all sorts of post-apocalyptic work, but EA got recycled through the used book store post haste.
@MVS, Abebooks (oddly, an acquisition of Amazon’s) has Emergence for half the price you cite – though $22 delivered for a worn mass-market paperback is still a bit dear.
@RSchiaffino, The Day of the Triffids–excellent, I agree. No Blade of Grass was doomed for me by the bad science. In addition to cereals, Christopher assumed that all short green stuff was grass. However, nothing with a visible flower is grass. He missed the masses of dandelions growing without competition and the populace planting turnips for food, for example.
John, are you a Goodreads user? Someone that can be followed and whatnot?
@hamletsshrink – I agree that Earth Abides is a bit dated (I think it was written in the 40s), and I also had some issues with the racism. But I thought how the small group restructured themselves was rather interesting, and how the main challenge wasn’t so much physical survival but mental. That was a nice change for me. I teach middle school, and I read A LOT of YA dystopian fiction in order to keep up with my kids. I’m getting a little sick of fighting zombies all the time, so I found this book to be a refreshing change – if a bit dated.
oh I can’t believe I forgot Blood Music, it is one of my all time favorite books…
Fans of Emergence might be interested to know that Analog magazine serialized a sequel several years back (2008, sayeth Wikipedia), called Tracking.
I’m surprised no one has mentioned Nick Sagan’s Idlewild trilogy. It has some of the most memorable characters and quite a few touching scenes. I think I was even introduced to it by this blog.
Earth Abides is definitely a book of its time, and Ish is racist by the standards of today (or perhaps more snobbish than racist per se), but I think we have to give the book credit for making the main relationship in the book be between a white man and a black woman and having this absolutely not be a big deal IN A BOOK WRITTEN IN 1949.
A great list–I also loved THE STAND and personally think WORLD WAR Z is a modern classic.
There is also VIRUS: THE DAY OF RESURRECTION, written by the late Sakyo Komatsu and first published in 1964. It’s a classic of Japanese apocalyptic science fiction, and was (finally) translated into English in 2012. While some of the science is out of date, that doesn’t stop the book from having one hell of an emotional impact as the man-made virus in the novel decimates the population of Earth, leaving only a few thousand survivors in Antarctica.
And then things get worse….
Because of all the Emergence love on this list, I decided to check it out from the library. It took awhile to get here from the other half of the state, hence this late post. When I just happened to show my latest read to my office mate, she told me that she’s known the author for many, many years and said that my showing her the book convinced her to reach out and reconnect with him. Sometimes it’s scary/wonderful how interconnected the world is.