Science fiction explores the interconnectedness revealed by the coronavirus pandemic



Faced with events that transcend borders, science fiction novels contend with interconnectedness around and beyond Earth.
(Shutterstock)

Mayurika Chakravorty, Carleton University

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, a theory widely shared on social media suggested that a science fiction text, Dean Koontz’s 1981 science fiction novel, The Eyes of Darkness, had predicted the coronavirus pandemic with uncanny precision. COVID-19 has held the entire world hostage, producing a resemblance to the post-apocalyptic world depicted in many science fiction texts.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s classic 2003 novel Oryx and Crake refers to a time when “there was a lot of dismay out there, and not enough ambulances” — a prediction of our current predicament.

However, the connection between science fiction and pandemics runs deeper. They are linked by a perception of globality, what sociologist Roland Robertson defines as “the consciousness of the world as a whole.”




Read more:
Apocalyptic fiction helps us deal with the anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic


Globality in science fiction

In his 1992 survey of the history of telecommunications, How the World Was One, Arthur C. Clarke alludes to the famed historian Alfred Toynbee’s lecture entitled “The Unification of the World.” Delivered at the University of London in 1947, Toynbee envisions a “single planetary society” and notes how “despite all the linguistic, religious and cultural barriers that still sunder nations and divide them into yet smaller tribes, the unification of the world has passed the point of no return.”

Science fiction writers have, indeed, always embraced globality. In interplanetary texts, humans of all nations, races and genders have to come together as one people in the face of alien invasions. Facing an interplanetary encounter, bellicose nations have to reluctantly eschew political rivalries and collaborate on a global scale, as in Denis Villeneuve’s 2018 film, Arrival.

In ‘Arrival,’ people on Earth have to contend with the appearance of aliens.

Globality is central to science fiction. To be identified as an Earthling, one has to transcend the local and the national, and sometimes, even the global, by embracing a larger planetary consciousness.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin conceptualizes the Ekumen, which comprises 83 habitable planets. The idea of the Ekumen was borrowed from Le Guin’s father, the noted cultural anthropologist Arthur L. Kroeber. Kroeber had, in a 1945 paper, introduced the concept (from Greek oikoumene) to represent a “historic culture aggregate.” Originally, Kroeber used oikoumene to refer to the “entire inhabited world,” as he traced back human culture to one single people. Le Guin then adopted this idea of a common origin of shared humanity in her novel.

Globality of the pandemic

A cover of the book The Calcutta Chromosome.
In ‘The Calcutta Chromosome,’ Amitav Ghosh explores the spread of malaria.
(Penguin Randomhouse)

Many medical science fiction texts depict diseases afflicting all of humanity which must put up a unified front or perish. These narratives underscore the fluid and transnational histories of diseases, their impact and possible cure. In Amitav Ghosh’s 1995 novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, he weaves an interconnected history of malaria that spans continents over a century, while challenging Eurocentricism and foregrounding the subversive role of Indigenous knowledge in malaria research.

The epigraph quotes a poem by Sir Ronald Ross, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist credited with the discovery of the mosquito as the malaria vector:

Seeking His secret deeds

With tears and toiling breath,

I find thy cunning seeds,

O million-murdering Death.

Pandemics are by definition global. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, noting that “[p]andemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”

COVID-19 has forced billions into social isolation and continues to wreak havoc on an unprecedented global scale. Eerily similar photographs of masked faces, PPE-clad front-line workers and deserted downtowns emerged from every corner of the world.

However, a pandemic is not global merely in its spread — one needs to harness its globality to counter and eventually defeat it. As Israeli historian Yuval Harari notes, in the choice between national isolationism and global solidarity, we must choose the latter and adopt a “spirit of global co-operation and trust”:

What an Italian doctor discovers in Milan in the early morning might well save lives in Tehran by evening. When the U.K. government hesitates between several policies, it can get advice from the Koreans who have already faced a similar dilemma a month ago.

Regarding Canada’s response to the crisis, researchers have noted both the immorality and futility of a nationalistic “Canada First” approach.




Read more:
Canada must act globally in response to the coronavirus


Clearly, a nation cannot insulate itself from the deleterious effects of the pandemic by closing its hearts and borders. Tightening immigration can temporarily stanch the flow of people, but the virus, like the “million-murdering death,” is treacherous in its border-defying agility. Presently, as many nations experience a resurgence of nationalism and exclusionary policies of walls and borders, the pandemic is a harsh reminder of the lived reality of our transnational interconnectedness.The Conversation

Mayurika Chakravorty, Instructor, Department of English and Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies (Childhood and Youth Studies), Carleton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading during coronavirus: books can be triggering, but difficult texts teach us resilience, too



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Kate Douglas, Flinders University and Kylie Cardell, Flinders University

We teach English at university. Our weekly engagements include navigating unnerving plot twists, falling in and out of love with iconic characters, and evaluating the complexities of language and genre.

Reading challenges how we think. Each week, in English classes, we explore some of the most significant issues and representations affecting various historical periods and cultures.

In the first semester, our reading list included classic works of literature that deal with themes including mental illness and psychological as well as physical isolation: Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Then COVID-19 happened.

News reports began circulating on what professors were reading for refuge during the pandemic. An article in the New Yorker pondered why “anxious readers” might be soothed by Mrs Dalloway. This is a text that, in the past, has seen students request trigger warnings for its of “examination of suicidal tendencies” which “may trigger painful memories for students suffering from self-harm”.




Read more:
When literature takes you by surprise: or, the case against trigger warnings


Our teaching suddenly moved online, which created an even more unsettling set of conditions. We were teaching literary texts representing various kinds of trauma to students coping with a range of new (or exacerbated) issues due to sudden loss of employment, social disconnection, anxiety and fear.

Would reading these difficult texts prove to be a solace for our students, a timely example of the social role of literary storytelling, or a trauma all of its own?

What are difficult texts?

Great stories move and they challenge. They draw attention to diverse social and cultural issues and to the transformative potential of empathy. But they can also be difficult and there are a range of reasons why.

The challenge might be intellectual. Or the text confronting on a psychological or emotional level.

A lot of literature is perceived as perpetuating racist stereotypes. Until quite recently, a good deal of canonical literature excluded the perspectives of women. This is something Woolf has written extensively about and that we can see at work in Mrs Dalloway. Part of her novel’s radicalism is its transgressive (for its era) narrowness of scope: a day in the life of a woman.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar explores mental illness, and could be triggering for some readers.
Flickr/kristina, CC BY-ND

And of course, there are themes in literary texts that are in themselves inherently challenging or traumatic: war, racial violence, and misogyny are staples in Shakespeare’s plays.

In identifying difficult literature, the goal posts shift: what was confronting to past generations may not remain true for current readers. So too, what was acceptable to readers of a certain era may no longer be acceptable in the 21st century.

Universities have seen an escalation of interest in content and trigger warnings. Viewpoints have run at both ends of the extreme. Content warnings are either coddling the minds of the “snowflake generation”; or one step away from censorship. Others consider warnings as essential in protecting students from psychological harm.

As literature scholar Michelle Smith notes, it seems widely accepted a lecturer should give a warning before showing a graphic visual scene. However, the argument trigger warnings should accompany written literature that represents difficult or challenging subject matter has been met with more scepticism and opposition.

This places a great deal of responsibility on teachers to decide where to draw the line.

Teachers face the ambitious balance of wanting to protect our students from representations that might be too difficult and trigger unwanted emotional responses, alongside a desire to expose students to complex representations, and histories — for instance of inequality, discrimination, racism and sexism.




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We use the term “trauma texts” to explore how new literary subjects and voices have emerged in the 21st century. Trauma texts reveal literature’s potential for direct and active political and cultural engagement. When we take these texts into the classroom, we ask students to accept difficulty into their lives (if they can), and to witness complex lives and histories in nuanced, critically engaged ways.

Teaching in the time of COVID has re-energised these ongoing debates. For instance, there is an opportunity to recognise (with renewed vigour) how a reader’s individual experience shapes how they approach a particular literary text. We have developed new understandings of how literary texts operate in moments of great cultural or social upheaval.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is a radical text for its times.
Flickr/Wolf Gang, CC BY-SA

Iso-lit reading during COVID

In our research and practice we have found many positive outcomes when we teach difficult texts in university English. Our students appreciate the texts we teach address recognisable real-world problems.

These books offer opportunities for readers to show empathy, witness injustice and reflect on the ethics of representation. They offer skills (critical reading and thinking, debate, negotiation) that are transferable to diverse work contexts. They come to understand the value of literature (broadly conceived), and the wide cultural and political influence it may have.

Research has shown reading difficult texts with students requires care, and an awareness of how to approach content and trigger warnings. As life narrative theorist Leigh Gilmore reminds us, when we bring trauma texts into the literary classroom, we should teach as if someone in the room has experienced trauma.

The classroom needs to be a safe space.

In teaching difficult texts, it is a reasonable expectation we provide information (in advance) to students regarding any difficult content. We need to open a dialogue between student and teacher and this needs to be maintained throughout the semester so we can offer ongoing support.




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As well as empowering our students, this approach provides us with an opportunity to reflect, dynamically, on why we want to teach these texts.

In previous research we have argued that in English, we want to encourage students to confront new ideas and to be challenged by what they read. This is integral to the university experience. We are asking students to be generous readers who have the capacity to look inward and outward.

Now, more than ever we need tools to read and respond to human experiences of crisis and pain. Reading difficult literature is one way by which the eternal and ongoing responsibility of humanism can be fulfilled.The Conversation

Kate Douglas, Professor, Flinders University and Kylie Cardell, Lecturer in English, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book Publishing and the Global Pandemic


The link below is to an article that looks at publishing in the midst of a global pandemic.

For more visit:
https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/how-the-publishing-world-is-staying-afloat-during-the-pandemic_n_5ec431c9c5b69985547b5a5b

Reading Has Increased


In the previous post it was noted how difficult reading was to do in the current climate of anxiety and fear regarding coronavirus. However, the link below is to an article reporting on the surge in reading during the pandemic.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/15/research-reading-books-surged-lockdown-thrillers-crime

It’s Difficult to Read at the Moment


The link below is to an article that looks at why it’s so difficult to read a book at the moment.

For more visit:
https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/5/11/21250518/oliver-j-robinson-interview-pandemic-anxiety-reading

Ebook/Ebook Reader Sales Rising


The link below is to an article that reports on the rise in sales of both ebooks and ebook readers, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of traditional bookshops.

For more visit:
https://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/ebook-sales-are-undergoing-a-revival-in-2020

P is for Pandemic: kids’ books about coronavirus



NSW Health

Shih-Wen Sue Chen, Deakin University; Kristine Moruzi, Deakin University, and Paul Venzo, Deakin University

With remarkable speed, numerous children’s books have been published in response to the COVID-19 global health crisis, teaching children about coronavirus and encouraging them to protect themselves and others.

Children’s literature has a long history of exploring difficult topics, with original fairy tales often including gruesome imagery to teach children how to behave. Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf in a warning to young ladies to be careful of men. Cinderella’s stepsisters had their eyes pecked out by birds as punishment for wickedness.

More recently, picture books have dealt with issues including September 11, the Holocaust, environmental issues and death.

But this wave of coronavirus books is unique, being produced during a crisis rather than in its aftermath.

Many have been written and illustrated in collaboration between public health organisations, doctors and storytellers, including Hi. This is Coronavirus and The Magic Cure both produced in Australia.

These books explore practical ways young children can avoid infection and transmission, and provide strategies parents can use to help children cope with anxiety. Some books feature adult role models, but the majority feature children as heroes.

The best of these books address children not just as people who might fall ill, but as active agents in the fight against COVID-19.

Our top picks

Coronavirus: A Book for Children

Written in consultation with an infectious diseases specialist and illustrated by Axel Scheffler of The Gruffalo, this nonfiction picture book offers children information about transmission, symptoms and the possibility of a cure, reassuring readers that doctors and scientists are working on developing a vaccine.

The last few pages answer the question “what can I do to help?”

Coronavirus: A Book for Children shows a diversity of characters taking action to manage the effects of the virus. Children are told to practice good hygiene, not to disturb their parents while they are working from home and keep up with their schoolwork.

It is also hopeful: reinforcing the idea that the combination of scientific research and practical action will lead to a point when “this strange time will be over”.

My Hero is You! How kids can fight COVID-19

Written and illustrated by Helen Patuck, My Hero is You! is an initiative of a global reference group on mental health, and is a great book for parents to read with their children.

Sara, daughter of a scientist, and Ario, an orange dragon, fly around the world to teach children about the coronavirus.

Ario teaches the children when they feel afraid or unsafe, they can try to imagine a safe place in their minds.

Based on a global survey of children and adults about how they were coping with COVID-19, My Hero is You! translates the results of this comprehensive survey into a reassuring story for kids experiencing fear and anxiety. It also acknowledges the global nature of the health crisis, showing children they are not alone.

The Princess in Black and the Case of the Coronavirus

The Princess in Black is an existing series, with seven books published since 2014 and over one million copies sold. In the books, Princess Magnolia enlists children to help with a problem she cannot defeat alone: here, of course, that problem is coronavirus.

For fans of the series, Magnolia and her pals are familiar characters encouraging readers to solve the problem of coronavirus by washing their hands, staying at home, and keeping their distance.

The Princess in Black shows a deft use of humour to introduce children to complex ideas in a familiar and friendly manner.

Little heroes

Children’s books have often sought to entertain and educate children at the same time. The immediacy of these books, with their practical solutions and strategies for children to manage fears and anxieties about sickness and isolation, is a phenomenon we haven’t seen before.

With free online distribution and simple messages, these books present children with individual actions that have both personal and collective benefits.

Importantly, the heroes identified in these stories include children themselves. Their fears are acknowledged, but at the same time they are told they can fight the virus successfully.


A frequently updated list of children’s books on the pandemic is available from the New York School Library System’s COVID-19 page.The Conversation

Shih-Wen Sue Chen, Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature, Deakin University; Kristine Moruzi, Research fellow in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University, and Paul Venzo, , Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A thousand yarns and snapshots – why poetry matters during a pandemic



Kenrick Mills/Unsplash

Christopher Wallace-Crabbe, University of Melbourne

Why do we have the arts? Why do they seem to matter so much? It is all very well muttering something vague about eternal truths and spiritual values. Or even gesturing toward Bach and Leonardo da Vinci, along with our own Patrick White.

But what can the poets make of, and for, our busy, present lives? What do they have to say during grave crises?

Well, they can speak eloquently to their readers for life, in writing from the very base of their own experiences. Every generation has laid claim, afresh, to its vital modernity. In the 17th century, Andrew Marvell did so with witty lyrical elegance in his verse To a Coy Mistress. Three centuries later, the French poet René Char thought of us as weaving tapestries against the threat of extinction. Accordingly, he wrote:

The poet is not angry at the hideous extinction of death, but confident of his own particular touch, he transforms everything into long wools.

In short, the poet will, at best, weave lasting, memorable, salvific tapestries out of words. The poems in question will come out live, if the poet is lucky, and possibly as disparate as the sleepy, furred animals caged in Melbourne Zoo.




Read more:
A beginner’s guide to reading and enjoying poetry


What is truly touching or intimate need not be tapped by elegies, for all that they can fill a mortal need. Yet the great modern poet W. H. Auden wrote in memory of poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman:

There is one, only one object in his world which is at once sacred and hated, but it is far too formidable to be satirizable: namely Death.

As William Wordsworth and Judith Wright both well knew, in their separate generations – and quite polar cultures – the best poetry grasps moments of our ordinary lives, and renders them memorable.

Poetry can give us back our dailiness in musical technicolour: in a thousand yarns or snapshots. Poems sing to us that life really matters, now. That can emerge as songs or satires, laments, landscapes or even somebody’s portrait done in imaginative words.

Yes, verse at its finest is living truth “done” in verbal art. The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once insisted “nothing ever happens later”, and the point of poetry in our own time – as always, at its best – is surely to shine the light of language on what is happening now. The devil is in the detail, yes. But so is the redemptive beauty, along with “the prophetess Deborah under her palm-tree” in the words of the Australian poet, Peter Steele.

Poetry sees the palm tree, and the prophetess herself, vividly, even in the middle of a widespread epidemic.




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Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection


Modern poetry is an art made out of living language. In these times, at least, it tends to be concise, barely spilling over the end of the page: too tidy for that, unlike the vast memorised narratives of the Israelites, the Greeks or even the Icelanders. But what it shares with the ancient, oral cultures is its connection with wisdom, crystallising nodes of value, fables of the tribe, moments or decades that made us all.

In the brief age of a national pandemic, poetry’s role and its duties may come to seem all the more important: all the more civil and politically sane. The poem – even in the case when it is quite a short lyric, even if comic – carries the message of moral responsibility in its saddle bag. Perhaps all poets do, even when they are also charming the pants off their willing readers.


Christopher Wallace-Crabbe is judge of the ACU Prize for Poetry. Entries close July 6.The Conversation

Christopher Wallace-Crabbe, Emeritus Professor in the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.