As someone who thinks and writes about how speculative fiction helps us to navigate the ways that science and technology shape daily life, I regularly encounter proclamations that we are “living in a science fictional world.” Generally, this sentiment describes something like self-driving cars or the gene-editing possibilities of CRISPR technology—things that once seemed the province of science fiction are now achievable and within our lifetimes. With the emergence of the Covid19 global pandemic, this idea has perhaps taken a darker turn. For people like me who have spent a lot of time reading dystopian fiction, the past few weeks of self-distancing and stay-at-home orders have produced a world that is simultaneously bizarre and familiar, a disquieting and unprecedented personal experience that nonetheless unfolds along lines that are deeply familiar from fictions.
I am hardly the first to think immediately of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, which imagines a global pandemic that begins in Hong Kong and quickly spreads around the world. Indeed, when I recently checked an old URL that offer public education about viruses and pandemics at the time of the film’s release, I found that it had been redirected to a new site created in response to Covid19 by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, including new PSAs recorded with the film’s cast. The education provided in these PSAs echoes both the guidelines we repeatedly hear today—social distancing, wash your hands, how to disinfect surfaces, avoid touching your face—and information conveyed by the film itself. Indeed, its opening moments perhaps seemed odd to viewers at the time, focusing in intense detail on objects touched by hands and exchanged among people, but now their sinister import is crystal clear to viewers: these are the places where we unknowingly transfer the virus from person to person.
One of the functions of speculative fiction is to extrapolate from known science: at times the genre has educated audiences, and Contagion certainly does this, and indeed some may argue that the film is not speculative at all because it draws extensively and realistically on known science. Its speculative element is the fictional virus, MEV-1, and the hypothesis the film presents in its final moments as to how it jumped from bats to humans: the film’s patient zero is an American executive who travels to Hong Kong in support of a development project destroys the bats’ habitat, forcing them to relocate to a location that puts them in proximity to pigs farmed for food, who are killed only shortly before they are consumed. The final piece of the puzzle is a chef who fails to wash his hands for 20 seconds before shaking this executive’s hand. The main mainly follows the efforts by WHO and CDC scientists to track, contain, and eventually create a vaccine against this virus, but this final montage of images that show how it emerged in the first place connects the film to a more important function of speculative fiction: to prompt us to recognize and reflect upon how the political choices we make intersect to create possible futures—ones we may wish to avoid as much as ones we may try to embrace.
Contagion reflects our ongoing situation to an eerie degree. Some government officials are initially reluctant to embrace the protocols recommended by scientists: “It’s the biggest shopping weekend of the year,” laments the Chicago mayor when told to forbid large public gatherings. An unscrupulous blogger preys on fear and peoples’ desire for a quick solution to market an untested and ineffective “cure,” and we see him cynically placing flyers for his product on car windshields while he wears protective gear, despite having proclaimed himself cured. Panic and paranoia abound, but the only thing that eventually gets people through the crisis is time: social isolation works for those who follow it, a vaccine is developed, life slowly moves back to normal.
Yet there is reason to take hope from the ways that the film also differs from our current situation. Its narrative does not address many of the things I see around me in quarantined Los Angeles—volunteers making face masks to ensure an adequate supply; art imaged as a social and civic collective experience, not just a commercial marketplace; new methods for sheltering those without homes; revitalized environments in the absence of human-caused pollution; policy changes that prevent utilities from being disconnected or people from being evicted for non-payment given the economic impact of social distancing measures, which are vastly uneven in their distribution. These, too, are topics central to the speculative fiction imaginary, questions about how we live together and what kinds of futures we wish to create, about who is to be included in these futures.
The importance of thinking through this moment from the perspective of how science intersects with the social is why, for me, Contagion is a speculative fiction film. In his PSA, Lawrence Fishburne, who plays a CDC scientist in Contagion, reminds us of his character’s contention that “viruses change the way that people live.” In the film and the PSA, this statement refers to the custom of shaking hands, a habit that putatively has its origins in societies for which carrying weapons was common and thus a sign that one is not armed. As Dr. Fauci, our own leading scientist has also suggested, perhaps this is a custom better left in the past given how much it supports the spread of viruses. As we reinvent ways of working and living together during the virus, let us think capaciously and speculatively about the often-heard phrase, “we are all in this together.” The challenges of this moment are also opportunities to reflect on how we lived before and whether we want to return to the old normal, or to invent a new one. The health of our society requires us to change how we live in response to this virus, and through the framework of speculative fiction we can contemplate what we mean by a healthy society at the level of our social and economic systems as well as our immune systems.