Recommendation: I would have preferred this as non-fiction, but it is a good read nonetheless
Where to read: It’s kind of holiday reading…but also really not
Read with: Strong liquor (of any variety really)
In brief: My gripes about wanting non-fiction from Wright aside, this is actually a Trojan Horse of a novel. The entire point, now rendered slightly less vital, is to try and educate the reading public about infectious disease risk. The use of the “thriller” genre is borderline incidental.
Written by Lawrence Wright, the journalist behind The Looming Tower, The End of October is peak pandemic fiction(ish). Designed to draw attention to the (previously) overlooked danger of infectious diseases, it was mostly written before COVID hit. I suspect, however, that some changes would have been made before it was sent to the printers to more precisely align with events as they planned out.
This is not a novel about COVID however – it is more like Contagion (or World War Z for that matter) in its portrayal of a pandemic nightmare scenario. The broad plot is probably familiar (from both fiction and a bit of reality) – a respiratory infection spills over from birds to people in Asia, the outbreak is concealed by the local authorities and the national government and the virus then spreads to the Middle East with a pilgrim travelling for the Hajj. Everything goes to absolute shite from there and we end up with near total societal collapse and biological and conventional war between … everyone.
For all the focus on the infectious disease aspect, Wright is also drawing together broader trends in US and global politics and current affairs, from the general lack of awareness and investment in public health, to Russian interference in US democracy and then the overarching existential crisis of climate change (which, spoiler alert, is ultimately responsible for the pandemic). There are points where the whole thing feels implausible and you have to remind yourself that, much like 2020 generally, the world really is an over-the-top episode of Black Mirror.
One reviewer characterised the book as “oddly comforting” and I do sort of take their point – COVID has exposed all sorts of social vulnerabilities but we haven’t slid into anarchy in the way Wright portrays. I do not share their comfort, however. The disease in this case has an extremely high (and graphic) fatality rate and I cannot imagine, given the wobbles we’ve already seen with COVID, that society would hold up as well to a haemorrhagic disease which kills 60%ish of the population, particularly younger and middle-aged people.
The prose becomes a little by histrionic at points, and the eco-terrorism/bioweapon side plot at the end feels shoehorned in (which is unfortunate because the last thing one should be thinking at the end of a book like this is “well, that got a little silly”). All in all, however, it is a good and timely read. Just make sure you back it up by picking up something non-fiction on the topic (such as The Coming Plague or Pandemic).