The End of October
© 2020 Lawrence Wright
COVID-19 gotcha down? Cheer up! It could be worse. A lot worse. Like…the US president dying on live television, bleeding from the eyes worse. The End of October was published shortly before COVID-19 went viral (hurr hurr hurr), and when it popped up on my radar in late March its author lamented that he’d gotten so much right. Well, time will tell, but so far Saudi Arabia and Iran haven’t triggered World War 2 as DC and Moscow back their favored brands of psychopaths, so we’re ahead of the game. And the internet still works! The End of October is a truly depressing medical thriller about the rise of a pandemic, possibly originating in a bioweapon, and the complete collapse or even destruction of global civilization. It is captivating, all-too prescient, and something you should avoid like the plague (hurr hurr) until we’re in the clear.
It all started in Indonesia, in an startlingly deadly outbreak of the flu in a concentration camp for homosexuals. A physician attached to the CDC & and the World Health Organization investigated, only to realize to his horror that this was a novel strain of flu altogether, and that people had already been filtering in and out of the camp, potentially spreading it abroad. One of them happened to be on the way to perform the Hajj, a global gathering of Muslims in Mecca. Our CDC doctor and his colleagues desperately work to impose a quarantine, then to understand and defeat the threat it poses, but geopolitical stresses complicate matters and make the situation far worse for everyone. The good doctor is ultimately stranded on a US submarine, while things go to hell in a handbasket the world over. On the homefront, we follow his wife and kids as they witness society falling away around them. This particular track of the novel is especially harrowing, and not helping matters is what we learn about the doctor’s backstory — his family’s previous run-ins with virulent diseases.
As a story, The End of October is excellent: it’s an unusual kind of thriller, drawing on a medical mystery and the search for truth. Its characters are uniformly interesting and sympathetic people, including the Saudi royal who is utterly torn about how to respond to the blossoming horror in Mecca, and the looming war with Iran. But boy, is the middle of a pandemic a bad time to read a book like this. It’s interesting to compare what Wright predicts and what we’ve done: our global response has been more aggressive than the response of societies in the novel, as people continue meeting in person for the most part, and PPE is only mentioned when people are dealing with known vectors like their dead neighbors. I don’t now what my reaction to this would have been had I not read it during all this COVID uncertainty, but I suspect it would have been one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read regardless.
In short, it’s a good read….but you’ve been duly warned.