Sunday, July 21, 2019

YA Guy Reads... Classic Plague Novels!

YA Guy will admit that the title to this post is perhaps the weirdest I've ever written. But as I'm sure I've mentioned, I'm not only a YA writer; I also have a doctorate in American literature and teach at the university level. What this means is that I read a lot of non-YA literature, and sometimes, I find that it dovetails with the YA I read (and write).

That seems to be the case now, though I'm not sure exactly how or why I started reading the genre I'm currently reading: classic novels about plague. Plague novels are super-popular right now, in both YA and non-YA: we have zombie plagues, hot zone plagues, superbug plagues, and so on and so forth. No doubt this plague craze has to do not only with actual medical threats but with generalized anxiety about the state of the world.

And I suppose, though I've never written (and have no plan to write) a novel specifically about plague, all of my novels are similar to plague novels in that they're about people surviving against hostile environments: the desert-plus-monsters environment of the Survival Colony novels, the sentient, predatory Nature of the Ecosystem trilogy, the threatening exoplanet of Freefall. Come to think of it, the draft novel I just completed does feature a disease as one key plot element. So when I started reading plague novels, maybe I was preparing for my own next book.

Anyway, here are the top three classic plague novels I've read, in order of the date of publication. I wish I could say "enjoy," but like all books of this sort, these three are pretty grim.

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Written by the author of Robinson Crusoe, this is a fictionalized account of the 1665 plague in London that killed nearly 100,000 people. Defoe's book relies on archival research, testimony from survivors, and other sources, but its narrator is pure invention, as are some of the incidents. That makes it an early example of experimental, hybrid fiction (or creative nonfiction). Coincidentally, the novel I wrote my senior year in college was titled after Defoe's work, which I'd heard of but hadn't read as of then.

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826). Almost one hundred and fifty years before Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend, Shelley wrote this novel of a worldwide plague that leaves no one but the narrator alive. Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is sometimes considered the first science fiction novel, and you could call this book the first post-apocalyptic novel (unless you think of the Book of Revelation that way). It's nowhere near as influential as Frankenstein--and, truth be told, it's nowhere near as well written, with the first 100 pages in particular being full of turgid prose and Romantic excess--but it's still quite an accomplishment.

Albert Camus, The Plague (1947). Originally published as La Peste, this novel tells the tale of plague descending on a twentieth-century city in French Algeria. Narrated by one of the town's doctors--who avoids death himself but loses his wife, ironically, from an unrelated illness she's escaped the city to cure--the book can be seen as an allegory of the German occupation of France or, more generally, as a work of existential philosophy, with the plague standing for the human condition of inevitable death and capricious fate. Either way, it's beautifully written, focusing much more on people's diverse reactions to the pestilence than to the graphic details of plague itself.