Book Review | The End of October

Book Review | The End of October

Based on extensive scientific research, a fictional reminder that COVID-19 is but a mild pandemic – and merely a taste what's to come

Riding the corona-lit bandwagon

As the Crikey article "Waiting for COVID: when will we see the literary impact of our plague year?" started off,

During the long months of lockdown, millions of ambitious writers have been bashing out the great pandemic novel/screenplay. Most will be terrible. But perhaps a handful might come close to capturing the surreal disquiet of the past months... all [of which has been] fertile artistic and literary terrain.

I don't know about you, but the thought of reading the "great" COVID-19 novel is nearly enough to set off my gag-reflex. Stories of futurist dystopias where workers are cordoned off in their own pods logging in to work via Zoom-like setups, distraught tales of loneliness where the only sources of respite are the occasional yearnings of emaciated kittens, adventures of bumbling underground rebellions where the protagonists are out to stop evil cabals of satan-worshipping, blood-harvesting pedophiles. (The latter, in case you didn't already know, is the all too real QAnon crowd: half nuts, half antisemitic.)

Similarly, for those well-versed in and expectant of the ongoing collapse of industrial civilisation, tales of sorrow based around the beginning of the end of cheap air travel, the beginning of the end of multiplex cinemas and big-budget blockbuster movies, of food-shortages in first world countries (all three of which will have their own FF2F posts sometime down the line), etc., will likely all come off as lamentable cries for a return to "normality" by clueless, literary hacks.

Of course shame and embarrassment are non-existent to some, as lo and behold a COVID-based movie is already on the way, it being the first feature filmed in Los Angeles since quarantine was lifted. Dubbed by some as "exploitation cinema", Songbird, produced by Michael Bay (director of Armageddon, Pearl Harbour, etc.), is set in the year 2024 amidst week 214 of lockdown (and here we thought 16 weeks here in Melbourne was bad) whereby "COVID-23" has mutated to infect people's brains, infected Americans are forced into quarantine camps, while homes are raided by sanitation "police" for suspected patients. Oh, and it's a love story.

While it's questionable whether or not we may end up fortunate enough to be bestowed one day with a worthy-of-our-time pandemic-based, systemic-cognisant, collapse novel set sometime in the future, by coincidence 2020 saw the release of a novel that not only got ahead of the corona-lit bandwagon but, and unlike the expected trashiness of Songbird, wasn't half-bad either.

A bout of prescience

In 2010, and upon reading Cormac McCarthy's 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road (which I heartily recommend), filmmaker Ridley Scott asked author Lawrence Wright "What happened? How could human civilization become so broken?" While he was at it, Scott also asked Wright if he could write a screenplay about the end of civilisation.

Wright – Pulitzer Prize winning author of the book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, author of a book on the Church of Scientology, and staff writer for the New Yorker – considered the outbreak of nuclear war, but as he couldn't see much opportunity for the role of a hero (Scott is run-of-the-mill Hollywood, although not as bad as Michael Bay) he settled on pandemic outbreak.

Although a movie was never made, Wright began writing his pandemic-based novel in 2017, submitted the first draft in mid-2019, and then saw his book The End of October fortuitously released in April of this year – just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining a strong foothold in Europe and North America – resulting in the novel becoming an international best seller rather than a politely received novel available at all fine airport bookstore kiosks (while they were still open).

The End of October
At an internment camp in Indonesia, forty-seven people are pronounced dead with acute hemorrhagic fever. When Henry Parsons–microbiologist, epidemiologist–travels there on behalf of the World Health Organization to investigate, what he finds will soon have staggering repercussions across the globe: an infected man is on his way to join the millions of worshippers in the annual Hajj to Mecca.

Wright certainly can't be accused of riding any sort of corona-lit bandwagon, and what he instead can be accused of is of having utilised his journalistic-chops to conduct extensive research. This included interviewing experts across various fields, be it from the NIH, the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, Pfizer, etc.

Where Wright's imagined pandemic differs from our very real COVID-19 pandemic is, for starters, that it centers around a novel influenza-based pandemic (the "Kongoli" virus) rather than today's novel coronavirus-based pandemic. Secondly, and while the story is modeled upon the 1918 influenza, the case fatality rate for Wright's fictional Kongoli virus is a whopping 45% versus COVID-19's relatively low ~2%. If you're interested in the outcomes of a pandemic set in our modern day world and which does a bit more damage than shutting down restaurants, pubs, cafés and movie theatres, you now know where to look.

What makes The End of October not only prescient but utterly uncanny for those not familiar with the societal fallout from pandemics is the amount of parallels between Wright's fictional story and the events unfolding for us all here in the real world: social distancing, quarantines, resistance to quarantines, claims that the virus is nothing more than the seasonal flu, claims that the virus is man-made, shortages of ventilators, masks, gloves, syringes, respirators and diagnostic testing kits, overwhelmed hospitals, dead bodies piling up, empty airports, emptied supermarket shelves, supply-line disruptions of essential medicines coming out of India and China, the loosening of social distancing resulting in more severe outbreaks, etc.

Although Wright deserves credit for his extensive research and the accuracy of his portrayal, the prophetic qualities of The End of October can be chalked up to little more than Wright having had paid attention while few others did. (Having dedicated a chapter to what I called "the monoculture flu" in my unpublished manuscript, and having encountered little more than rolling eyes when broaching the topic with others over the years, you can be rest assured that my manuscript is now being renamed and will be amended appropriately.)

What Wright also looked into was whether or not our modern day infrastructure could withstand the onslaught of a severe pandemic, his conclusion being a resounding "no". What this means fiction-wise is that the initial wave of the Kongoli virus leads to a recession, which progresses into a recession, which instigates a conventional war, which then morphs into cyber-attacks and bio-warfare. Likewise, power grids and water systems fail, the Internet goes down, American Airlines goes bankrupt, all data in the Cloud is lost, gas lines explode, the stock market is closed, feral dogs roam the streets, gangs of orphaned children terrorise vacant cities, house-cats eat their "owners", etc. Days of Our Lives of Collapse.

"Oh man, this tastes so much better than that tinned cat food with all those preservatives" (photo by Alex Uslkov)

But although I would heartily recommend The End of October for those interested in how a formidable pandemic might wreak havoc on our modern day world, it's only fair to point out that the book is in fact a fast-paced thriller that's quite obviously made with a big-screen adaptation in mind. I mean, it doesn't get much more Hollywood than the following line given by the book's hero, epidemiologist Henry Parsons, investigating on behalf of the World Health Organization: "I'm not just talking about containing a pandemic. I'm talking about saving civilization".

Likewise, upon (a proxy) war breaking out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which sees the destruction of one of Saudi Arabia's main desalination plants, it's mentioned that "It occurred to Henry that he was witnessing the death of the Age of Petroleum". Now you'll have to forgive the pun, because although Wright is most certainly aware of the critical infrastructure underlying differing nations, the manner by which things collapse – society humming along just fine one day, pretty much gone the next – is however on the crude side of things and thus glaringly bereft of any cognizance of modern civilisation's energetic problems due to diminishment of quantity and quality (peak oil and EROI, respectively).

Moreover, while The End of October lacks the kind of subtlety that would lend to itself a more nuanced understanding of collapse (of industrial civilisation), I think it's necessary to add that for somebody that has also done a fair amount of research into pandemics that I've got a few quibbles when it comes to some of the book's ecological understandings of influenza hosts and transmission, as well as with the current agriculturally-related state that we as a species find ourselves in.

Home is no longer on the range

Although I was very much surprised with the amount of scientific accuracy in The End of October, there was however one (non-scientific) situation where the absurdity got me to burst out laughing. As said by our epidemiologist hero to his wife,

But, listen, Jill. This disease isn't going to stay in Mecca. Even if we can keep the pilgrims locked up until this wave passes, the birds are carrying it. I don't know how much longer it will be before it hits the U.S. Maybe a week, maybe a month. I want you to take the kids and stay at your sister's farm. Take a couple month's worth of groceries. Don't see anybody. Don't even touch the mail. Just hunker down and wait for me.

"[S]tay at your sister's farm"? For real?

I'm well aware that the arc of a family member owning a farm bestows upon the plot the provision of a point of refuge from the "outside" world, but the status of owning a farm in US has become so negligible (now under 1%) that the US government removed that category of employment from the census decades ago, an outcrop of agribusiness pushing out all the small farmers in lieu of the corporatization of agriculture. Yes, during the Great Depression of the late-1920s and early-1930s many of those who found themselves unemployed in the cities were able to find their way to the farm of a (sometimes distant) family member. Likewise with the 1918 flu.

But nowadays? Nowadays so few people have a non-agribusiness-oriented farm (never mind a farm at all) that this occurrence serves as little more than a plot-device for a romantic and delusioned pandemic fantasy, dismissive of humanity's current state under industrial civilisation of detachment from the land, concentration in over-crowded cities (which are ripe for pandemic spread), and thus precarious position when it comes to accessing food and (chlorinated) water once just-in-time supply lines break down. But that's all a bit too "deep" for a Hollywood-esque pandemic-based story (with a pretty hokey villain, I might add).

What many-a-farm of yore looks like today (photo by Robert Ruggiero)

My second gripe with The End of October emanates from that very same paragraph, in particular the statement that "the birds are carrying [the virus]". What is meant by this is the fact that various birds, particularly water fowl (ducks), are known to be transporters of influenza viruses, specifically via the excretion of their faeces as they fly along their migratory routes. This is however an occurrence often blown out of proportion, providing the basis for agribusinesses-aligned politicians to argue for the slaughter of wild birds. To give just one example, a statement by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations made it clear that

FAO has urged countries in Asia not to cull wild birds in response to recent outbreaks of avian influenza in China, Thailand and Viet Nam.

"Killing wild birds will not help to prevent or control avian influenza outbreaks," said Juan Lubroth of the FAO Animal Health Service. "Wild birds are an important element of the ecosystem and should not be destroyed."

Although it is recognized that certain species of water fowl can be a reservoir of avian influenza viruses, "to date, there is no scientific evidence that wildlife is the major factor in the resurgence of the disease in the region," he added.

Many studies have in fact shown that influenza viruses found in the faeces of wild birds is quickly inactivated outdoors. As stated in the Indian Journal of Virology study entitled "Survivability of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 Virus in Poultry Faeces at Different Temperatures",

[E]xposure of the virus infected faeces to sunlight could result in hastened inactivation process due to faster drying and radiation effects of the sunlight.

If there is little to no problem with the (quickly drying) faeces of wild birds, then why the vilification and then attempt at their extermination? Reason: if any of that still-wet faeces lands next to a shed housing tens of thousands of monocultured chickens (which are forced to live and walk amongst their own wet faeces) and happens to find its way in, there's a big chance that the entire shed of dilapidated chickens will quickly find themselves dead, as might all the chickens in any adjacent sheds (sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of birds).

Moreover (and this is where a certain unpublished manuscript comes in), it's once inside these monocultured chicken and pig sheds with large quantities of weakened populations that viruses are given the golden opportunity to mutate to their heart's desire (which Wright almost touched upon, but not quite).

But that's another story for another time.

"Forget bats and pangolins, we monocultured ones are gonna fuck up you humans real good"

Anyhow, and the various concerns regarding the effects of industrial agriculture aside, if you're in the mood for some pandemic-oriented escapist entertainment, you could certainly do worse than The End of October.

Sounds of COVID-19, with Fanfare Ciocărlia

Having thus reached the end of October in the real world, things aren't looking so good COVID-wise when it comes to the European and North American portions of the northern hemisphere. While epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the Osterholm Update podcast (website active early-November) stated in the most recent episode that the United States is soon to be hitting more than 100,000 new cases a day, the US health secretary Alex Azar attributed part of this increase to "mitigation fatigue". As Azar elaborated,

Cases are increasing. We're seeing this happen because we're getting colder weather and we're losing that natural social distancing that happens from being out of doors.

Suffice to say, it's gonna be a rough next few months for many people in those resurging portions of the world, particularly those in that one country that has plenty of viral-transmitting opportunities coming up thanks to Halloween "celebrations" tonight, a certain election at the beginning of November, Thanksgiving at the end of November, aaaaaaaand a population that has so far purchased a record-setting 17 million guns this year with still two months remaining. Yikes.

On the other hand, down here in Melbourne, Australia, where we've just started emerging from four months of lockdown, we're not entering the cold winter months but rather the warm summer months (which can be annoying for wearing masks, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do). That being so, for this round of "Sounds of COVID-19..." here's Fanfare Ciocărlia doing their 2009 live rendition of George Gershwin's "Summertime" (made famous by Billie Holiday and then Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong), which is apparently the most recorded song of all time.

Not sure what this "Sounds of COVID-19, with Fanfare Ciocărlia" section is? Then be sure to check out its dedicated page for an explanation:

Sounds of COVID-19, with Fanfare Ciocărlia
Get ready to give your hips a workout, cause the one and only monsters of brass are about to make you shake off those COVID-19 blues

Formerly a budding filmmaker, now jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion & the renewal of culture. READ MORE

  ALLAN STROMFELDT CHRISTENSEN  2020