Books about recurring, seasonal plague
March 12, 2020 11:24 PM   Subscribe

I've read a lot of books about how humans cope with an singular, unprecedented plague. But what if it came back every year? I want to read about that.

What if the flu were deadlier but still seasonal? I can imagine cities that empty out, and cities that cease to exist. Every house with an ornate handwashing basin right at the entrance. The complete dispersal of most work back to homes.

Surely somebody has put more thought into this than me. I'm imagining mostly fiction, but I'd be happy to read non-fiction as well.

Two stories in particular that shape my interest on this are Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness (set on a world with very long winters) and Seasons of the Ansarac, about a migratory people who follow long seasons from cities to rural villages. They both capture something about the adaptability and ingenuity and weirdness of social beings that I'm finding kind of reassuring right now.
posted by McBearclaw to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
"World War Z" has a follow up to the zombie plague where people in cold winter areas clean up defrosted zombies during the spring thaw
posted by alchemist at 11:42 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]

Can't help you with a specific book, but malaria is an obvious real-world example.
posted by flabdablet at 1:23 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Smallpox in the 18th century had pronounced seasonal peaks in a number of European cities, as well as a pretty regular two year interval between the end of one outbreak and the beginning of another in many cases. And smallpox was no slouch; at the turn of the Millennium I heard a couple of demographers from Cambridge University claim that the toll from smallpox was 500 million in the twentieth century alone – more than all the wars of that bloody century put together, they said.

Histories of the development of vaccines often have a section describing the social context of the emergence of the first effective vaccine developed in England by Edward Jenner, and I dimly recall some very interesting excerpts of letter exchanges between English aristocrats concerning the mores of smallpox at the time including at least one from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (?) in an older book about the immune system called At War Within.
posted by jamjam at 3:06 AM on March 13

Plague swept London five times in Shakespeare’s life; not annual, but there were norms about it. Yellow fever and cholera have been endemic lots of places. Measles, diphtheria, polio, TB... the oddity is that we know what causes it now and still can’t control it.
posted by clew at 3:08 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Pepys Diary describes in great and fascinating detail the 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague which killed around a quarter of London's population by the end of the year from a beginning in Summer.

Pepys evidently saw it coming because of an outbreak in Amsterdam in 1663.
posted by jamjam at 3:46 AM on March 13

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is about time travel and the plague but also about a modern virus hitting Oxford, England in a the future. In the story, governments are extra cautious because it’s only a few years after a significant percentage of the world’s population has died in a pandemic - not exactly what you’ve asked but interesting to see how the virus is proactively handled and how the “emptying out” you describe affects an academic campus.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 5:22 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Mira Grant's Feed takes place a decade and a half after an air- and blood-borne zombie plague hits the world. There's the original trilogy, the collection of short-stories and novellas (some take place during the initial uprising and I noped right out of them), and a fourth novel that takes place at the same time as the original trilogy from the perspective of a different set of characters. The trilogy is actually a political thriller set in a post-plague world. The omnibus was on sale a couple days ago, and might be still.

Mira Grant is a pseudonym of Seanan McGuire.
posted by JawnBigboote at 5:54 AM on March 13

Polio was also seasonal in temperate climates.
posted by metasarah at 8:41 AM on March 13

It's not exactly what you're asking for, but you might still find N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy interesting, starting with The Fifth Season. I'm thinking specifically about the recurring nature of the titular seasons (near-extinction events) and how they've shaped humanity.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:50 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

Feed puzzled me because I can't see how the society is still materially rich enough to use as much disposable anti-infection tech as they do. Otherwise a great thriller.

The fourth of the exuberant, tied-to-historical-research Richard Carey novels has London plague as a major plot point -- A Plague of Angels.

The Diamond Age has a little bit about nanotech neo-Victorianism defenses against disease -- veils, certainly, probably gloves. I don't know how well actual Victorian veils and gloves could have worked without any understanding of germ theory. (Though Edith Wharton, late in her life, had to explain to people that yes, it had been normal to walk around in a veil so thick that people who knew you couldn't recognize you. Some of them were *wool*.)

You could check out household management texts, particularly in the period between discovering germs and discovering antibiotics.
posted by clew at 1:47 PM on March 13

New Orleans was pretty regularly hit by yellow fever. I seem to recall it factors into Kate Chopin's The Awakening.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:48 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone! I'm grateful for both the real-world examples and the book recommendations. Sometimes I just know something is out there, but the way it's formulated in my brain doesn't pull in the results.

(ManyLeggedCreature: the Broken Earth trilogy is absolutely in this category, and I can't believe it didn't come to my mind. Thanks!)
posted by McBearclaw at 9:57 PM on March 13

Not books, but solemnly gorgeous: a Guardian summary of paintings about death and plague, with a brisk history of the painters' losses thereto.
posted by clew at 4:26 PM on March 23

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